FSAs remain controversial 

Sea to Sky students take assessment tests this week

Students in Grades 4 and 7 in the Sea to Sky corridor are currently taking the government's Foundations Skills Assessment tests.

This is the second year the tests are being held in February, after being moved from a May test date in 2007.

It is also the second year students will complete the multiple-choice portion online using a computer. The written portions will continue to be done on paper.

Schools, teachers and parents should have the test results by March, with an in-depth report on the test available to the school early next winter.

The FSAs have been much in the news lately as first teachers refused to administer them, then the province went to the Labour Relations Board to ask them to rule on the teachers' position. That was followed by a LRB ruling that said teachers need to administer the tests and finally a vote by teachers saying they will.

Every time the FSAs are in the news, so too is the ranking of schools done by the Fraser Institute, which uses the test results as its platform. This in turn takes the meaning of the tests - a provincial guide to how the elementary school education system is doing - and turns it into a tool for comparison.

Leaving the politics aside, the tests are valuable, say both Spring Creek Elementary Principal Gerri Galloway and Myrtle Philip Elementary Principal Sharon Broatch.

"It is a valuable tool for the province, the district and the school and gives one kind of information that teachers need to consider when they are looking at their curriculum and their instruction and we do value all of the other forms of school based assessment, but this is a provincial one.... so there is a place for it," said Galloway.

Added Broatch: "They are a valuable indicator of student achievement throughout the province. They are less valuable when broken down by school because of statistical factors, like sample size, so it makes it very difficult to draw broad conclusions from them."

Both principals say the information the schools get back is considered by teachers and staff and can help with curriculum and in tracking the same cohort from Grade 4 to Grade 7.

However, said Broatch: "...To take a specific group of Grade 4s and compare them to a previous group of Grade 4s is a statistically invalid comparison as they are a different cohort."

Galloway and Broatch agreed that the Fraser Institute ranking is unhelpful from an educational perspective especially if it breeds competition.

"The rankings are statistically invalid and I think damaging," said Broatch.

The rankings can be impacted by the sample size, for example, so that comparing the two schools is unfair.

Last time around Spring Creek's Grade 4 cohort was 21 students while its Grade 7 was 27. At Myrtle Philip there were 38 Grade 4 students and 30 Grade 7s.

"To generalize and say that one school is better than another because of that one test is wrong and it just creates hard feelings," said Galloway.

According to the FSA scores for 2007-08 Myrtle Philip Grade 4 and Grade 7 students were above the provincial norm, sometimes substantially, in all categories. There were also numerous students who exceeded expectations.

At Spring Creek the situation was the same.

Teachers and their union, the B.C. Teachers Federation, do not support the ranking by the Fraser Institute and in general feel that the tests create anxiety for students and do nothing to create learning.

"The best thing for all of us to remember is what the tests were designed for," explained John Hall, Sea to Sky president of the Teachers' Association.

"They were designed to give us a picture of how the educational program in the province is doing - that is their purpose. They weren't intended to test individual students, they weren't intended to test individual schools or districts, and they certainly weren't intended to create a ranking in the province by a right wing think tank."

There are numerous issues around the tests, including the move last year to a computerized format. In essence that makes comparison with previous years of little value. There were also enormous technological challenges last year with the computers. In some cases the students would be working and the whole system crashed. In other cases students wrote the essay portion on computers rather than on paper, taking advantage of automatic spelling and grammar checks.

Then, of course, there are the individual struggles each child might have had that day: perhaps they were sick, emotionally distressed, hungry and a hundred other things that may affect their performance.

In the end, said Hall, parents must think of the FSAs as a snapshot only and if they are concerned about their child's performance on the test they should get together with the teacher and work on a plan to ensure the student meets appropriate expectations.

"It is a snapshot, it is a picture of a moment in time along the way," said Hall. "It is not a culmination. The child's report card is the culmination of events."

To find out more about the FSA data go to www.bced.gov.bc.ca/assessment/fsa

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