Geoff Johnson: It's time for a long, hard look at large-scale testing

Let’s begin by acknowledging that some forms of assessment are critical in measuring the progress of individual students in public schools.

That said, here’s an open question for B.C. political party leaders: Tell us about the pros and cons of large-scale testing of students.

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That question includes a look at what, if anything, candidates know about Canadian PISA results, provincial comparisons and what effect those results have had on provincial education policy as schools launch headlong into 2021.

There are other questions that flow out of this — serious questions, given that public education takes the second biggest bite out of the provincial budget after health care.

Candidates and party leaders may be aware that the B.C. School Trustees Association is asking the government not to release the results of large-scale provincial skills assessments of elementary school students this fall.

Referring to the Fraser Institute’s practice of shaming schools by publicly comparing them with each other, based partly on school results on the Foundation Skills Assessment, the BCSTA has written to Education Minister Rob Fleming outlining its concerns about how the data is used, calling the practice unnecessary as well as “harmful and unfortunate.”

“There is testing that teachers do on an ongoing basis and that’s what parents should be looking at, how their individual child is doing,” said Gordon Swan, president of the BCSTA.

Even Peter Cowley, the Fraser Institute’s director of school performance studies, is reported to have admitted that direct comparisons of small schools to large schools or rural schools to urban schools is not very useful.

What do candidates have to say about this?

A 2014 report compiled by a government advisory group on provincial assessment came to a similar conclusion about the FSA results and how they are used.

That report said the FSA is “used to make judgments that go beyond its mandate,” and “groups such as the Fraser Institute misinterpret and publicize results in ways that are damaging to classrooms and schools and therefore damaging to learners.”

Many parents, me included, found that FSA results, as an example, did not tell me much of anything worth knowing about my child’s educational progress, beyond what I could find out in a five-minute discussion with my child’s teacher.

In fact most teachers — and I have worked with, observed and supervised many over the years — will be clear about the fact that they found nothing helpful beyond what they already knew from working with children who, for a variety of reasons, some beyond the school’s control, were struggling.

Which leads to another question for those wishing to form the next B.C. government: What evidence exists to indicate that the approximately $750,000 cost of administering and reporting FSA results has led directly to the quality of educational experience for any child in any school, and have large-scale assessments resulted in increased funding or support for students, schools or even school districts identified as producing poorer FSA results?

As a long-time teacher and education administrator, I’d like to hear an informed debate between party leaders about what the generally agreed upon indicators of school excellence are and how the FSA measures those indicators — or does not.

Those indicators include student access to fully qualified excellent teachers. That includes, especially at the secondary level, access to teachers teaching within their own academic area.

In fact, all research I am aware of points to teacher excellence as the No. 1 factor in individual student or classroom or school success. Which begs another critical question: What are the characteristics of teacher excellence?

Informed opinions, not “popular opinions” from candidates, would go a long way to winning my vote.

Between the effects on schools of the COVID-19 pandemic, the looming election and the emerging controversies about how we measure the quality of schools in this province, now would seem a good time for all candidates to take a deep breath and bring informed (and I use that word deliberately) plans for school improvement to the table.

Geoff Johnson is a former Superintendent of Schools.

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