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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 19, Number 5, March 2007

The accountability scheme

Penalizing poor children

The most recent statistics (2004) state that one in four BC children live in poverty, equal to 23.5% or 196,000 children. BC’s rate of child poverty is still the highest in Canada and well above the 17.7% average for the country. This is almost the same number of children as the population of Burnaby or the combined populations of Nanaimo, Kelowna, and Williams Lake.

We have no reason to believe that the latest statistics are different. Poor children are twice as likely to be judged "poor students" by their teachers and twice as likely to drop out. Poor children are also more likely to be hyperactive, suffer from emotional disorders, exhibit disorderly conduct, get into trouble with the law, be in the care of child welfare services, engage in riskier behavior, and be unemployed as adults. This affects us daily in our classrooms. Many of our students are coming to school with little or no food and then are expected to learn. We can only imagine how difficult this can be.

How does the accountability scheme and standardized testing, such as the FSAs and other district-driven wide-scale assessments, affect the students we have in our classrooms that are living in poverty? Alfie Kohn has extensively discussed the affects of these assessments on children and how standardized assessments are a remarkably accurate methods for gauging the size of the houses near the school where the tests were administered. He states that ignorance is the most charitable explanation for why charts are published that rank schools by these scores, such as the Fraser Institute’s yearly publication. How does such a measurement ineffectively evaluate the learning experience? An excellent example of this is Roosevelt Park Elementary School in Prince Rupert, which has a high poverty rate and is consistently ranked as the lowest academic school in BC, yet has numerous examples of quality programs as reported by a recent CBC television program.

While standardized testing negatively impacts many educational environments, the impact on children living in poverty is more severe than it is on many other students. Across the province, school districts are under intense pressure to show better test results. This has a direct impact on classroom teachers as they are now asked to be part of the accountability contracts and have to participate in the accountability scheme whether they agree with what is happening or not. The pressure on teachers and students is increasing every year and when you have students in poverty in your classroom it is likely that they will not score as well as other students, therefore making it difficult to meet the demands of the contracts. We need to remember that we teach children and they should be first on our priority list, not the accountability scheme. Children living in poverty learn differently than other children.

Ruby Payne, a leading antipoverty author and activist, identifies three primary areas affected by poverty where students tend to learn differently. These are writing skills, planning and predicting, and organizational skills. These are all important areas when looking at standardized testing and results. We can’t expect these children to do well on these assessments without first looking at how they learn and where their deficits may lie. Then we can provide alternative assessments to better gauge their understanding. The FSA tests do not accurately assess the learning ability of students living in poverty. The results of the FSA tests simply sort out the most vulnerable students who will more likely be judged as failures based on the test results.

The BC School Trustees Association states on their web site that: "...in modern democracies, public education is the great equalizer. It is the means by which people of diverse languages, cultures, and socio-economic circumstances come together as a society. In Canada, our commitment to public education—open and available to all—is a key element in shaping the way our society has evolved and will continue to evolve."

This is contrary to what is happening in BC schools with the accountability scheme and privatization. Our students living in poverty are at a definite disadvantage and the education system is not a great equalizer for them. The accountability scheme can inaccurately identify problems for students living in poverty. The current solutions offered to this problem are initiatives such as e-learning and an increase in private education choices. Private education is out of reach for these students. E-learning has poor success rates because of inappropriate pedagogy. Therefore, this option further impedes student success and exacerbates the poverty issue.

Alfie Kohn says, "...teachers should do what is necessary to prepare students for the tests—and then get back to the real learning. Never forget the difference between these two objectives. Be clear about it in your own mind, and whenever possible, help others to understand the distinction."

Until there are great improvements toward the elimination of child poverty in Canada, the current test-driven system will continue to further disadvantage some of our neediest students. We need to advocate for strategies to eliminate poverty and stop the accountability scheme, so all students can get back to learning and teachers can get back to teaching.

"Making students accountable for test scores works well on a bumper sticker and it allows many politicians to look good by saying that they will not tolerate failure. But it represents a hollow promise. Far from improving education, high-stakes testing marks a major retreat from fairness, from accuracy, from quality, and from equity." Senator Paul Wellstone (1944-2002)

– BCTF AntiPoverty Action Group

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