B.C. teacher union wages wrongheaded war on student testing
Opposition to large-scale student testing is bred into the bone of many teacher unions. A notable instance is the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation’s continuing opposition on that province’s Foundation Skills Assessment (FSA). In addition to decrying what it sees as the dysfunctional nature of the FSA, the union has long sought to persuade parents to boycott the tests.
Highlighting a remarkable disconnect, a 2020 Leger survey of 1,204 Canadian parents found overwhelming agreement on the importance of knowing how their child is doing in core school subjects by fair and objective measures. Fully 96 per cent of British Columbia parents surveyed agreed with this.
In response, the BCTF would not likely point to the FSA’s claimed unreliability as a measure of individual student success, which is attributed to its assumed purpose as a measure of system performance.
But the system-level data come from aggregating test results from individual students. Student results are also made available to parents, satisfying parent expectations for performance measures while also providing school, district and system level data.
Both are desirable, especially as system-level findings from the FSA can be complemented by independent results from other large-scale international assessments to provide illuminating context while still providing student-level data to parents. This is particularly valuable in the wake of the pandemic as we seek to better understand learning loss from the extended school closures.
For example, the latest Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) assesses reading abilities of children in Grade Four. B.C.’s FSA also assesses Grade 4 reading, and while scores from the two measures are not comparable, results from one can illuminate the other.
B.C. students performed well on PIRLS (based on 2021 results), placing 18th among 48 participants. Yet all but four participating jurisdictions saw their scores decline from previous PIRLS assessments, part of which is presumably attributable the pandemic disruptions. B.C. recorded a four per cent drop in scores from the 2006 assessment, which was the third-largest decline among participants with comparable data, exceeded only by Germany and Flemish Belgium.
The FSA Grade 4 reading scores show a shallow improving trend before the pandemic, an anomalous spike during the 2020/21 disruptions, then a steep 2.5 per cent decline thereafter with a lower 2022/23 score than any over the past decade-and-a-half. This substantial drop may be partially attributable to recent measurement changes made to blend the previous reading and writing tests into a combined literacy measure. But whether it’s called reading or literacy, given the independently measured decline in the PIRLS scores, it seems clear that B.C.’s Grade 4 students suffered learning losses associated with the pandemic disruptions.
More accurate estimates of the damage done will have to await future FSA and other test results, without which policymakers, teachers and parents alike will be flying blind when seeking ways to compensate for this erosion of learning. This behoves the BCTF to encourage parents to support rather than boycott the FSA, and policymakers to support future participation in international large-scale assessments.