n May of 2003 The Fraser Institute, generally regarded as a right-wing think-tank, released the Report Card on British Columbia's Elementary Schools: 2003 Edition. In it, The Fraser Institute claims to have "collect(ed) a variety of relevant objective indicators of school performance into, one easily accessible public document."1 The document goes on to rank British Columbia's elementary schools. I am a proud teacher who works at a school that ranked 791 out of over 800 schools.
This ranking of schools is supposedly done to help parents choose a school for their children and to encourage those schools that get low rankings to improve; however, the rankings are not based on a variety of indicators. The Fraser Institute explains that the overall school rating is based on the following eight indicators:
Is it just me, or do the results of the FSA look like the only source for the report? As teachers, we are encouraged to use a wide variety of sources to evaluate our students. In addition to testing, we rely on observations, self-assessments, peer evaluations, interviews with students and parents, and portfolios, to name a few. Imagine if teachers wrote report cards based entirely on one type of test.
Every year, between the last week in April and the first week of May, all Grade 4, 7, and 10 teachers in British Columbia are required to give their students the Foundation Skills Assessment. Teachers and parents all know that this time of year is quite exciting and busy for students. The weather is getting hotter, anticipation for the summer is kicking in, and many field trips are occurring. What a great time for a province wide exam. Many students fail to take the test seriously.
I can give a number of reasons of why the school I teach at did so poorly on this "assessment", but the biggest reason could be because of the high percentage of our students who have English as their second language. Research has shown that on average ESL students require five to seven years to reach grade level academic language skills. 2 Even if a student arrives in Canada in Kindergarten, it would not be surprising to see that they did not have the language skills required to perform well on the FSA test by Grade 4 or even Grade 7.
Many teachers are highly skeptical of standardized testing. Before the test is administered we can typically predict who will do well, and who will not. Furthermore, it was clear to many teachers which schools would do well on the FSA, and which schools would not. The schools who have high ESL learners and/or a low socio-economic population did much poorer than the schools that had the opposite student population. This is a poor indicator as to how good a school is.
I have to admit, though, that seeing these rankings in the newspaper did make me feel upset, making me think that if I had children of my own I'd be sending them to the number one schools (as a side note, this coming school year, in British Columbia parents are now free to choose what schools their children will attend regardless of school boundaries). Then I thought of my own school. We ranked 791, but it is an amazing school. We have a strong sense of community; the teachers are motivating, professional, and fun; we have a highly involved parents' advisory council; our administration supports parents, teachers, and students; and the variety of cultures of the student population are celebrated. I could go on and on. My school has rejected the ranking and has chosen to continue to focus on the remarkable strides the students have made considering their backgrounds.
It is interesting to note that the lower ranking schools are not the only ones rejecting The Fraser Institute's report. Hugh Burke is the Headmaster of Meadowridge School, which shared the number one spot with twenty other schools in the province. In a June 11, 2003 letter to the Editor of the Vancouver Sun, Burke stated, "The problem is that these results are generally meaningless. We reject our ranking, as any good school will. I would be most suspicious of any school that actually boasted about such results." He goes further on to recommend, "If parents want to know the quality of a school, visit. Talk to kids and teachers; look around; ask questions. Look for a school that fits with your family."3
When ranking schools, The Fraser Institute explains:
Families choosing a school for their students should seek to confirm the Report Cardís findings by visiting the school and interviewing teachers, school administrators, and other parents. More information regarding schools may be found on the British Columbia Ministry of Education web site... and on the web sites of local school districts. Of course, a sound academic program should be complemented by effective programs in areas of school activity not measured by the Report Card.4
Then why did the Fraser Institute bother ranking the schools through the FSA results? They admit that these results alone cannot determine which school parents should have their children attend. One test, especially the FSA, cannot indicate the quality of a school. There are too many factors tainting its results. Even so, districts are being encouraged to further promote the results of this test to increase accountability and parental choice. For example, the Surrey School District has published the results of each school on their website: School Profile Book, which they claim to be "an improving student learning initiative."5
It is interesting to look back in the history of education and consider how England, in the 1860s, set up a system of "payment by results". In this system, teachers' salaries and student results were inextricably linked. Good results meant better wages for the teachers. If student results declined, so did salaries.6 This teaching-by-commission style seems ridiculous by today's standards, but the introduction of yard-sticks like FSA testing makes one wonder how far off we are from the implementation of a similar system. Considering the recent privatization drive in all sectors by Provincial Governments here in Canada, I think we will see serious changes to the education system in short order.
1 The Fraser Institute, Report Card on British Columbia's Elementary Schools: 2003 Edition (Vancouver: The Fraser Institute, 2003) http://www.fraserinstitute.ca/shared/readmore.asp?sNav=pb&id=536
2 Robin Scarcella, Teaching Language Minority Students in the Multicultural Classroom (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1990) 147.
3 Hugh Burke, "Headmaster Declines Fraser Report 'honours'", The Vancouver Sun, 11 June 2003.
5 Research, Communications and Safe Schools: SD 36, School Profiles and District Report 2001/2002 (Surrey: School District 36, 2003) http://www.sd36.bc.ca/general/school_profiles_0102.pdf
6 Ken Osborne, Education: A Guide to the Canadian School Debate - Or, Who Wants What and Why? (Toronto: Penguin Books, 1999) 117.