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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 18, Number 1, September 2005

Over the top accountability

by Noel Herron

The spring provincial election was barely over when B.C.’s Ministry of Education issued its second and more stringent draft of its accountability contract for school boards over the next two years.

For the past three years, parents, teachers, support staff, principals, consultants, and senior school board administrators, have devoted an inordinate amount of time and energy to the mandatory annual MOE accountability contract exercise.

This is an exercise rooted in provincial politics, allowing successive Liberal ministers of education to boast that the province is holding schools and school boards to account. Note the misuse of the word contract.

Here is a brief review of the change in direction that B.C. education has taken over the past few years.

With the election of a Liberal government in 2001, a radical restructuring of the ministry was initiated, eliminating almost any reference to the word curriculum.

A glance at the ministry’s current organization chart shows how entrenched this shift has become with words like evaluation, assessment, and measurement in prominent positions.

The test-driven agenda of the ministry is clearly evident in the officially designated titles of departments such as data management unit, accountability department, systems performance branch, achievement and assessment department, exams and assessment policy, marking and reports, FSA (Foundation Skills Assessment), and exams development.

Educational accountability for school boards, with the new revisions in the ministry’s contracts, are now standard practice for B.C. schools, with boards scrambling to make meaningful adjustments to the ministry’s rigid 10 points of inquiry criteria that govern the process.

Considering the fact that, on average, 35 pages of documentation (some even longer) are submitted annually to the ministry, few have questioned the direction and validity of this process.

As curriculum components form the very heart of our instructional programs, how can a so-called provincial accountability process, that claims to lead to improved student performance, studiously avoid any specific reference to key subject matters?

A case in point is the recent accountability overview of the Vancouver School Board. Officially termed District Review by the Ministry of Education, it involved 15 external supervisors (school superintendents, board consultants, teachers, principals and diverse staff, appointed by the ministry) who spent four days visiting 47 schools. The final report, despite a very thorough review, was restricted by the famous ministry 10 points of inquiry. There was not a single reference in this review to the board’s largest instructional program—English as a Second Language. There was no mention of the huge number of vulnerable children in special education and special-needs areas who are not receiving the instructional support they need, and, no reference to the pressing curricular needs in many key subject areas in the province’s most complex urban school system. The report truly had an Alice in Wonderland air about it when it came to curriculum matters.

And then we come to the latest addition to the ministry’s accountability list—the controversial Grade10 exams and their accompanying mandatory portfolio documents that involve a detailed accumulation of documents by all Grade 10 students.

These exams were strongly opposed by student representatives, parents, teachers, and trustees in Vancouver. Arguments about the narrowing of the curriculum, the forcing of teachers to teach to the test, the fact that many parents (as indicated in at least one national survey) favour teacher-made tests over standardized tests, and a potential increase in the drop-out rate, were summarily dismissed.

Colin McCabe, one of Britain’s leading academics commenting on how excessive testing undermines British education noted, "There is no need for students to spend two such determining years (leading up to graduation) in a frenzy of assessment. No other European country examines its children every year from 16 to 18, allowing them no time whatsoever to learn to enjoy intellectual inquiry or to develop genuine interests independent of exams."

But we in B.C. go one better than Britain, as the only Canadian province that begins the structured examination march to graduation with 15-year-olds in Grade 10.

Unquestionably, ideological excesses in examinations and assessments are continuing in British Columbia under the mantra of accountability.

Noel Herron is a Vancouver School Board trustee.

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