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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 20, Number 2, October 2007

Sooke teacher takes a stand

By Kathleen MacKinnon

"I’ve administered the tests for years and I believe they create undue stress for the children in our care. The last time I gave the test, a child dissolved in tears from anxiety. I’d put her in a situation I didn’t want her to be in." – Kathryn Sihota

Kathryn Sihota, a Grade 3 teacher in the Sooke School District and a 27-year veteran in primary teaching refused to administer the DART (District Assessment of Reading Team) test to her students in the spring of 2007. After one of her Grade 3 students broke out in tears at the prospect of writing the test, Sihota took a stand.

"The test does not know that my children have never sat down, in complete silence, and been forced to write down answers to questions about subject matter with which they are unfamiliar, with no ability to have discussions with their peers, or their teacher, or to ask questions." Sihota said.

Sihota was threatened with discipline from her board, and a hearing date was set for August. In support of Sihota, and in opposition to the government’s proliferation of testing and data collection, local teachers organized a rally to be held just before the board hearing. When the superintendent heard about the rally, he cancelled the hearing. A subsequent hearing date was set for September 25, 2007.

This time, Ian Johnson, local president, assured the superintendent that a rally, which by now had captured the attention of teachers throughout the province, would not disrupt the hearing process. Presidents from all around BC flew to Victoria, boarded a bus, and arrived at the school board office enmasse, joining teachers from Sooke and neighbouring districts. Donald Stewart, a Sooke music teacher, provided the appropriate drum rolls as local presidents, introduced one by one, read statements of support from the teachers in their communities.

Rachel Soberg, parent of a child who was in Sihota’s class when she refused to give the DART test and a candid speaker at the rally said, "If Kathryn decided (this test) was not appropriate for our kids to take, then I am going to trust her decision. As a parent I am not willing to trust someone who I have never met to make an assessment of my 8-year old child."

A school trustee from the Cowichan School District, Eden Haythornthwaite also imparted a powerful message to rally participants. "It seems that testing is either used to convince us that despite the cuts to public education resources, the system is still working, or when it suits the government, testing is used to discredit both the system and those who provide the service." she said. Haythornthwaite went on to read out a letter of encouragement sent by Hanna Seymour, a parent at Koksilah School, in Cowichan. Seymour mobilized all the Grade 4 families at Koksilah to resist the FSA test. All but two families requested exemption from the test.

In its June 2007 report, How Canada Performs, the Conference Board of Canada awarded Canada an overall A for Education and Skills and ranked us 3rd in the world. Ironically the United Kingdom and the United States, countries whose programs and testing agenda we too often mimic, received a B and C, and a 7th and 16th world ranking respectively. (See "How does Canada Fare," page 3.) Finland, on the other hand, a country that does absolutely no standardized testing, came in first in the world—they too received an A.

Alfie Kohn, public speaker and author of eleven books and numerous articles on testing, personally penned a letter of support and commendation to Sihota (see sidebar "Rich instruction sacrificed"), and colleagues from as far away as Japan and Australia sent greetings and encouragement. Sihota also received a card from a supporter in Colorado who enclosed $27—one for each year of her teaching.

After the rally, Sihota went into the hearing accompanied by her BCTF staff support person Richard Hoover, STA Co-president Ian Johnson, and BCTF President Irene Lanzinger. The board hearing, which was surprisingly short, was followed by a day and a half of waiting. On Thursday, September 27, 2007, the board made its decision known. They concluded that Sihota’s actions were "a deliberate and overt refusal to follow the direction of your principal" and that "constituted insubordination." They issued a letter of reprimand and an order to administer the DART in the spring of 2008.

When asked if she would obey this order, Sihota replied, "I’ve got to do a lot of thinking about this and decide. My intention is to provide the best learning environment for my kids and if that means standing up again, well maybe that’s what I’ll have to do."

The Federation is grieving the discipline letter.

Kathleen MacKinnon is a retired BCTF staff person on temporary assignment to BCTF media relations.

Quotes on assessment

"In Finland, the role of teacher-based assessment is all the more important because at Finnish comprehensive schools, students are not assessed by any national tests or examinations upon completing school or during the school years."
– Professor Jukka Sarjala, former director, Finland National Board of Education

"We are assessing the children’s literacy skills, so there will be no reading this week."
– Note on the door of a London classroom

"Public education is not about being relentlessly evaluated for norms: it is about an open road, an equal start, the beginning of wisdom, and the chance to love learning for life."
– Eden Haythornthwaite, Cowichan school trustee

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