Allan Douglas has been involved with the foundation skills assessments (FSA) since their inception, helping guide the process, so he‘d have a good idea about what the tests do, and what they’re not supposed to do.
In recent years, the FSAs have faced criticism from groups such as the BC Teachers’ Federation and the BC School Trustees Association, particularly as the results have been used as the basis by the right-of-centre think-thank, the Fraser Institute, for its annual report card of elementary schools throughout the province, which some argue pits different schools against each other.
“That was never the intent of the FSAs,” says Douglas, director of instructional services K-12 for Comox Valley Schools.
In fact, the results were not always made public, he says, but because of factors such as parental wishes to find out their children’s results along with pledges by the provincial government for transparency, over the years the FSAs became public knowledge.
What they were, and still are intended to do is provide a glimpse of students in grades 4 and 7 on how they are faring with the core skills of reading, writing and numeracy.
“What we do is look for trends,” says Douglas. “It’s just a snapshot.”
If a class at one school, for example, shows students behind, the importance lies in pointing out what particular material in the curriculum may need focus. In some cases, it could reflect items the class has not yet covered. What the test is not supposed to be, says Douglas, is a way to undermine teachers.
“It’s not about the Grade 4 teacher and the Grade 7 teacher,” he says.
The importance really is in the details of the test to point out any areas where classes need to concentrate. It also forms just part of the picture, as schools use school-based assessments as well, which will sometimes provide different messages for them. From early on, the district also relies on information kindergarten teachers provide through the early development instrument (EDI), which identifies children coming into the school system according to five different domains to point out which kids might be vulnerable and where they need help.
Another common trend in the Fraser Institute rankings is the presence of independent schools at the top of the rankings. Douglas says it is no surprise. On the one hand, it reflects some innovative programming and work on the schools’ part, but these schools, unlike public schools, do not have a mandate to provide a space for every student. In some cases, they require entrance examinations. Public schools, he says, also have a broader mandate, one that includes supports such as breakfast programs to make sure students are not starting their school day hungry.
”Everybody that comes into our schools we welcome with open arms,” he says.
The FSA takes a few hours to complete but is given over a week to help reduce test anxiety any students may have. The test has changed over time. In recent years, it has incorporated ideas from the province’s new curriculum to include opportunities for students to exercise some collaborative skills and reflective thinking, as well as answering the actual FSA questions.
Another big change for 2020-21 is the time of year for the test. In recent years, the students have written the FSAs during the fall, but because of COVID-19 logistical challenges, students will now write them in early 2021. An update of the provincial website notes the administration of the test is being postponed until Jan. 18 through Feb. 26, 2021, to provide schools more time to prepare.