Skills tests could change next year

All students in Grade 4 and 7 are expected to write tests of literacy and math skills this month.

All students in Grade 4 and 7 who are able to are expected to write tests of literacy and math skills this month, but changes will be considered for future years, B.C. Education Minister Don McRae says.

Long opposed by the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, the Foundation Skills Assessment tests are being administered in public schools across B.C. The issue is sure to be debated in this spring’s provincial election, as the NDP campaigns to scrap universal testing and look for a new way to evaluate student performance.

McRae said Wednesday there will be no change to the program this school year, with students only excused due to family emergency, illness or other circumstances beyond the control of the student. But he said he is open to discussing the program with the BCTF, school administrators and parents for years ahead.

“Any time we have a form of assessment, I think it’s really important that after you give it, if you’re going to give it again, you continually look at it to see if it can be done better or more efficiently, and meet the needs of the students, the parents and the educational system,” McRae said.

NDP education critic Robin Austin said work is underway with education experts to refine the party’s position on skills testing. If the NDP forms a government in May’s election, the plan is to replace province-wide tests with a random sample of students, and develop a new program later.

Austin said one of the problems with FSA testing is the annual controversy over the Fraser Institute school rankings based on test scores. The rankings are intended to help parents track their local school performance over time, but media attention typically focuses on comparing schools in rich neighbourhoods and poor ones.

The BCTF continues to urge parents to bend the rules and pull their children out of the testing program. A letter to parents on the BCTF website argues that FSA tests are expensive, time consuming and “results are misused to rank schools and promote privatization.”

McRae said FSA test results for all students have played a role in identifying students who need extra help, and can also help administrators spot performance problems in their schools.

But he agreed with Austin that it would not be appropriate to use FSA tests alone to evaluate teacher performance.

As a former teacher, McRae said one of his concerns about FSA is the timing. If they are going to continue to be used, the tests should be administered in the fall so teachers and parents have the results in time to work with students later in the school year, he said.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.’s Representative for Children and Youth, has expressed concerns about doing away with universal tests, because they can help schools improve results for aboriginal students.