School rankings rekindle FSA debate

Fraser Institute's school rankings are rekindling are rekindling the standardized testing debate in Chilliwack.

The release of the latest B. C. school rankings by the Fraser Institute on Monday is rekindling the debate on the value of standardized testing in elementary schools.

According to the ranking, top-scoring Chilliwack schools are Timothy Christian (ranked 39th) and Mount Cheam Christian, both private. The latter also made the list of top 20 fastest-improving schools, moving to 44th from the last five years’ average of 68th.

The lowest-scoring school was Strathcona, dropping to 758th from its five year average of 472nd.

Chilliwack Central scored similarly to last year, at 674th. The school has the highest proportion of ESL students (30 per cent) and special needs students (12 per cent) in the district.

The Fraser Institute’s annual report card ranks 853 public and private elementary schools in the province based on data from the Foundation Skills Assessment, a standardized test that most students write in Grade 4 and/or Grade 7.

The ranking has received intense criticism in the province, propped up by the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation’s campaign against the FSA.

“The problem we really have with the FSA, is that the data is taken by an outside body to assess schools against each other,” says Chilliwack Teachers’ Association president Clint Johnston. “It’s the use of the formalized data in the ranking, without taking into consideration the hundreds of thousands of other variables than can affect education, that is the problem.”

A teacher working in a classroom with a higher than average number of special needs students, explains Johnston, must split his time into ever smaller portions, irrespective of additional funding coming to the school. And any dramatic drops or rises in school rankings are evidence that the ranking system is invalid, because a school’s staff and teachers are unlikely to change their method of instruction equally dramatically from one year to the next.

“Is (the FSA) really a good indicator of the level and the quality of education?” asks Chilliwack-Hope MLA Gwen O’Mahony. “Those tests certainly do not reflect the overall quality of education that children receive at schools. In some ways, I think they’re being used unfairly, in an unfair judgment.”

The school district, however, does rely on the FSA for comparing the performance of the district to the rest of the province.

“We view the FSA as a balanced assessment program, and we also recognize it is a snapshot in time, so it’s one indicator. But it does help us to see how our students are doing in relation to the province,” says school district superintendent Evelyn Novak.

The district does not use the test to judge individual schools, she says. Indeed, there is little evidence that school districts use FSA performance to adjust funding allocation, such as adding resources to lower-scoring schools.

The B. C. NDP is campaigning on the promise to amend the FSA to include more than just writing and math skills testing. The plan is to have random testing in the NDP’s first year in office, while developing the final FSA structure. The B. C. Liberals have also used the FSA as a campaigning tool.

The success of the BCTF campaign to have parents opt-out of the FSA has been variable. In Chilliwack, between 2 and 20 per cent of students in each school did not write the last FSA. Provincially, 84% of B.C. students wrote the FSA between 2009 and 2012.

The Fraser Institute advocates for parents to use the rankings to determine which schools are best for their children, and for school districts to determine where the systemic strengths and weakness lie.

“By pinpointing the subject areas in which individual schools are improving or declining and how their academic performance compares to that of other B.C. schools over the past five years, our report helps educators prioritize learning challenges in their schools,” said the Fraser Institute’s Peter Cowley in a press release.

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