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Student success doesn’t have a postal code: Why the FSA is inequitable and ineffective

By Joanna Cornthwaite, Local President, Nanaimo District Teachers’ Association and Robyn Ladner, teacher, Vernon

The work that goes on in some of our most vulnerable neighbourhoods for some of our most vulnerable kids is incredible and cannot be quantified by these tests.

What is the FSA?

Robyn: The Foundation Skills Assessment (FSA) was introduced in 2000, as a province-wide standardized assessment of what the Ministry of Education and Child Care calls “basic skills”—those being literacy and numeracy. It is given to every Grade 4 and 7 student in the province unless stringent criteria are met for exemption. The results of the tests are then reported at the provincial, district, school, and individual level.

How does the FSA affect teachers and students?

Joanna: The process of implementing the FSA is very stressful for students, and also teachers. It is outside the regular classroom routine and does not follow the design or process of regular classroom teaching. Teachers need to pause their regularly scheduled activities during FSA times; then, after the FSA is completed, teachers need time to re-establish routines and help students regulate. Overall, it takes time away from learning.

Robyn: Over the 23 years that I’ve had to administer the FSA, I’ve observed that it has a negative effect on students’ motivation and learning. The tests create stress—especially among vulnerable or struggling students. The content is not differentiated or modified the way teachers do for students, so the reading level may be well above what they can understand, or the math may be much more difficult than the level where they are currently working.

As teachers, we strive to meet individual needs, adjust learning and assessment, and support students so they can be successful wherever they are on a spectrum of learning. Then the FSA comes along and shows them that they are not at the level of their peers or are not where they “should be,” and it’s demoralizing. It used to be that many more students could be exempt from the FSA. Now the criteria are much more strict and only students with multiple challenges can be excused from writing the tests. This means a student on an individual education plan (IEP), who may be learning several grades below their placement, is made to write the FSA and is expected to try and answer complicated math problems when their IEP has them doing basic computation. They may have help, or a scribe, but for many students with learning challenges, this is a cruel practice. The onus falls on the teacher to advocate for these students to be excused.

Why is it important that the BCTF campaign against the FSA?

Joanna: The FSA is extremely stressful for students with additional needs—any students with a learning disability or a diagnosis where self-regulation is a challenge find the regimented nature of FSAs incredibly difficult. Students need to be shown that success does not always mean high scores in tests of literacy and numeracy—success includes kindness, compassion, and perseverance—all things that are not measured by the FSA.

The data is collected by the Fraser Institute, which develops the tests. This data then appears in other venues, including the use of data by mortgage companies to identify “good schools,” which affects the morale of staff. The communities who perform poorly on the FSAs are identified as “bad schools” in “bad neighbourhoods,” and teachers from those neighbourhoods are often told by families, “My child is only here until we get into a good school.”

This could not be further from the truth: all schools are good schools; I would argue great schools. And I whole-heartedly believe that a postal code or school location does not determine student success. The success of students is determined by excellent teaching and protective adults who surround students in rich learning opportunities. Every public school in BC offers rich learning opportunities, protective adults, and, most notably, dedicated teachers who do their utmost to ensure student success every day.

Robyn: While I understand that the Ministry would like a “snapshot” of how students are doing across the province, this could be done with a rotating random sample each year. Testing every student, every year is unnecessary for how they say the data is used. I’ve been teaching since before the inception of the FSA. Since the FSA began, I have not seen any changes to curriculum or school funding as a result of test scores.

The work that goes on in some of our most vulnerable neighbourhoods for some of our most vulnerable kids is incredible and cannot be quantified by these tests. The inclusion, support, and heartfelt effort that goes into making sure these students in these schools and communities are cared for and given the best start in education is undermined by the Fraser Institute’s rankings.


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