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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 19, Number 2, October 2006

We'd rather be teaching

by Yvonne Eamor

When you think of university students writing exams, you may have an image of a gymnasium full of stressed-out young people pouring over reams of paper. Now imagine that same gymnasium but this time, consider that those stressed-out students are nine and ten years old.

Welcome to Grade 4 FSAs at Nesika Elementary in Williams Lake. Veteran teacher Rob Taylor says it hurts to see kids so young being herded into the gym for exams. "If that’s not stressful for nine-year-olds, I don’t know what is," he says. "Our kids are stressed out going into the exams. It’s a completely foreign atmosphere for them. And this goes on for an entire week."

Taylor also takes issue with the lack of direction teachers are permitted to give to students who are having trouble finding their way through the exam. For a profession that’s been highly trained to help guide young minds, FSAs prohibit teachers from performing that vital task. Taylor says, "There are kids who come up in tears because they didn’t understand the set of directions for math. You can’t help them. All you can do is tell them to do their best. It’s frustrating beyond words. A student asks for your help and you have to turn them away. Standardized testing means every kid has to receive the same direction—it’s horrible what that’s doing to kids’ psyches."

In a small town like Williams Lake, there’s another issue with FSAs: rankings. Taylor says his biggest concern is that rating a school means rating a teacher. "There may be just one Grade 4 class in town. The ranking the FSA provides reflects immediately back to the teacher."

Teachers know it’s easy to skew the rankings, simply by exempting some weaker students from the exam. In a recent Fraser Institute report card, Taylor says one of his district’s schools rated highest for French Immersion, and it doesn’t even have a French Immersion program. A student took French Immersion at one school but wrote the FSA at another and that threw the data out of whack.

Taylor also says the FSAs do nothing for kids who are barely meeting expectations. He says they are just another way of making them feel inadequate. And it doesn’t help, he says, to know that the exam results produce no meaningful data for teachers so there is no benefit to the kids. "The students are reduced to being a number and the schools are reduced to being a score."

Taylor says teachers don’t need FSAs to know how their students are performing, and that sentiment is echoed by Surrey teacher, Penny Kelly. She says FSAs, "undermine our professionalism. We see the child almost 200 days of the year. We know their achievement level. The test is redundant and I view it as an attack on teachers’ professionalism."

Kelly and Taylor agree that FSAs are not a true benchmark of what kids are about. "An FSA is one shot given over the course of a week," says Taylor. "Parents get a bar with a black line that shows them where their child is. But that shows them only where the child was on that day, on that test."

Kelly points out that many things are not factored into the result, such as what was going on at home that morning or the evening before, whether the child was healthy or happy, and she further points out that results are meaningless. "So the following year, the parents get a note attached to a report card about their child’s reading level. Well, I can tell them about it today, right now. But these tests are telling teachers that our assessment is not to be trusted."

Kelly says another serious drawback to the FSAs is the lack of follow-up action. "The scores are just numbers. They don’t tell you which particular kid should receive learning assistance. There is no follow-up other than to say a particular group of kids did not do particularly well."

Kelly has other issues, as well. "Erma Stephenson Elementary School is in an affluent and culturally-mixed community in which pressure is placed on kids to do well on the exams. People put a lot of pressure on their kids so that the schools rank high in the Fraser Institute scheme. I’ve had parents thank me for doing such a good job, because the school ranking is allowing them to sell their home for $20,000 more than they had initially planned."

Kelly says, "That’s not why I’m here."

Yvonne Eamor is the BCTF’s media relations officer.

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