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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 20, Number 3, November/December 2007

South Park: The little school that could

By Thierry Ponchet

Teachers around the province are very concerned about provincial and district-mandated assessments and their impact on the learning conditions of students. Mandated assessments focus on data gathering and ignore the individual learning needs of our students. But at least one school, in Victoria, has taken a strong stand against the accountability agenda.

At South Park Elementary School, nestled against the flank of Beacon Hill Park in downtown Victoria, staff and parents have supported a philosophy that strives to develop the full potential of all children. Built in 1894, the graceful, brick building has resonated with the sounds of children learning for over 100 years. What makes this school unique, however, is not its architecture, but the philosophy of the school where students are neither given grade scores, nor are they labelled with such descriptors as not meeting, minimally meeting, fully meeting, or exceeding expectations.

At South Park, parents keep well informed about the progress of individual students through the anecdotal reports and the students’ self-evaluation process. According to Louise Julian, the learning assistance teacher at the school, "reporting is about looking at the child individually, describing what they can do, what they can’t do, and setting goals." Report-card comments are framed in a positive and encouraging manner.

This manner of reporting is, says Karen Lee Pickett, a parent for the past three years at the school, much more informative than the standard grading scale of 1, 2, 3, and 4 used in most schools. Teachers work very hard at the school to provide students and parents with the specific progress for each subject. Another important facet of reporting out on student progress is the student self-evaluation process. Students are invited to comment in writing on each of their subjects as to how they are doing in each course. Such comments such as "I couldn’t understand this before, but now I really do." reflects an assessment practice that is centred on the student and not on some extrinsic standard.

South Park Family School has developed a philosophy based on parent participation as an integral part of their children’s educational development. There is a belief within the school community that children thrive in an environment that encourages co-operation over competition. Students are encouraged to take responsibility for their own learning and to become a partner in the assessment process beginning in Kindergarten. Children learn in a variety of ways so there is an emphasis on hands-on learning experiences both in and outside the classroom.

That is why South Park teachers and parents have had great difficulty in reconciling mandated-district assessments such as ORCA and provincially mandated FSAs with the philosophy of the school. Approximately 50% of students do not write the FSA tests. Teachers strive to nurture in their students an intrinsic motivation to learning; one that is not dependant on the external motivation of standardized testing. According to Margo Andison, a long-time teacher at South Park, "We have a responsibility to diffuse all external pressure on our students. Tests focus on what kids can’t do. We try to instill inour students an internal focus where self-evaluation is emphasized."

Karen Lee Pickett indicated to the school that her son would not be writing the FSA test. Her son went, with the other children who did not write, to the library while the FSA tests were being administered. She felt that the focus of FSA tests were out of context with the substance of the children’s learning in the classroom. She also had concerns about the length of time that it took to administer the test.

These standardized tests seep insidiously into the learning environment of a school. This impacts not only the teachers who are administering the tests, but also the remaining teachers who feel pressure to prepare their students for these tests a year or two before students actually have to write them. Teachers and parents at South Park have strongly defended their assessment philosophy in the face of ever-increasing pressures from mandated testing. According to Margo Andison, "...it is more valuable to assess students based on what they have done over the whole year or month rather than what a child can achieve on the particular day of the test." Andison goes on to state that children may feel tired or ill on that day or not find a particular topic very interesting.

So at South Park, teachers and parents work together to build an environment that encourages co-operation rather than competition, one that strives to instruct children in ways that best fit their individual learning styles. It is a school that supports strong family involvement and believes in the concept of a learning continuum and the importance of valuing the self-esteem of students as a key to being good learners.

That the school philosophy continues to flourish in a time when teachers across the province are being pressured to administer mandated provincial and district assessments is heartening and serves as an example to us all about how teachers, parents, and students can assert a vision of evaluation that runs contrary to the dictates of the Ministry of Education. Clearly, the staff in conjunction with their school community, have taken the position that teachers are professionals and that with support from parents, are best able to make informed decisions about the nature and frequency of student assessment. After all, the education and more particularly the assessment of the children of BC is too important an issue to be left solely in the hands of ministry officials.

Thierry Ponchet is president of the Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association.

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