It’s exactly one week to go to the start of this year’s Foundational Skills Assessment (FSA) testing in British Columbia, in which upwards of seventy thousand Grade 4 and 7-level students will spend a total of 4.5 hours completing standardized tests in the areas of Reading Comprehension, Writing and Numeracy over the course of two weeks.
According to the the Ministry of Education, “The main purpose of the assessment is to help the province, school districts, schools and school planning councils evaluate how well students are achieving basic skills, and make plans to improve student achievement.”
While this Ministry bumpf makes this now-annualized event sound innocuous enough, if you listen closely you can hear a province-wide gnashing of teeth coming from the BCTF and it’s devotees, parents, students and many public and independent school administrators.
Why all the fuss? Well, there are lots of opinions weighing in but I think it’s fair to start with the Ministry itself where, for this, the 8th year for the testing, it seems to my perception (and this is the 3rd year that I have been involved in administering the tests) that it has finally listened to some of the widening and intensifying criticisms of the testing, and it has introduced the following changes:
- this year, the testing is happening in February instead of May, so that the results may be known before the end of the present school year,
- this year, test papers will be evaluated by schools and school districts and then returned to students who had, until this year, been left in the dark about test results except for the remote possibility of being tracked down 5-6 months later (in the next school year) to be told they had received one of the following insipid evaluations for their efforts the previous May: “Not Meeting (grade level) Expectations”, “Meeting Expectations”, or “Exceeding Expectations”. And nothing more. No test paper to re-examine, no individualized suggestions about where or how they might correct their assessment, ‘er, test answers.
Now, before I move on, I want to commend the Ministry for introducing these changes this year. They are the right thing to do, and I’d even go so far to advocate that it is the right of every child participating in this, or any testing, to have their test paper(s) returned to them – in an appropriate time frame – so that they might review the test again, and their answers, so that they might learn something of value from this experience.
But speaking of learning, it remains bedrock clear that the FSA testing process itself and the tests themselves, as devised by the Ministry, fall well short of being anything but an intimidating or dubious experience for most test-takers, educators, parents and administrators.
To state the obvious: the tests are tedious, standardized fare, created to scratch the weakest itch of personalized interest on behalf of the test-takers through references to pizza, ice cream, school fairs, etc. but little else. They are designed, I surmise, with the intention of providing results of value to schools, but what results they provide that even semi-conscious educators or parents don’t already know remains a mystery.
As an experienced educator, I regard individualized assessment and personalized feedback to children on their basic literacy skills, and scholastic testing competency, as important but the FSA testing and the tests is so limited in its overall value as to be cliched at best.
I am convinced it doesn’t have to be this way, that the the Ministry of Education could use this annualized event as an opportunity to empower students young and old with skills they would value lifelong and from which our society would benefit. This would require stepping beyond the educational dogma of the 1950s in testing for mythical powers of linguistic and mathematical “intelligence”, that were improperly and narrowly conceived in the first place, to embrace Multiple Intelligences, holistic learning and the tenets of modern psychology that have taken root in every sociological domain in the past 40 years excepting formal education.
Here’s what I propose: Use the ‘FSA testing window’ to advance the following skills and competencies in all students:
- note-taking, mind-mapping
- improving personal resourcefulness
- improving communication skills
- understanding holistic learning (i.e. ‘brain-based’ or neurobiological learning, somatic learning [brain-body integration] and biological-based learning [studying the roles of nutrition, oxygen, sleep, etc. and learning])
- examining information-cognitive processing and helping young people improve their information-cognitive processing skills
- preparing for, sitting and analyzing testing
- optimizing mentoring/instructing situations
- mentoring others
Such strategies are, unfortunately, rarely overtly discussed in senior grades or university, let alone grade 4 or 7, where but in the past two years I have introduced modules covering much of this territory to learners preparing to write FSA (and their parents) with much success (and gratitude).
I think that if government and our dominant learning institutions really cared about kids learning and overcoming learning challenges and acquiring lifelong learning skills they would spend the time (and taxpayers money) helping our children improve these skills instead of continuing to focus on an extremely narrow intelligence range and academic content before ‘testing’ for failure, disability and weakness.
The legacy of this bureaucratic failing is successive generations of kids of all ages with a general and completely understandable fear or indifference toward testing, something I think is truly lamentable and unnecessary.
As for standardized testing, I’ll leave the final word about it, and its levy on students of any age, to Harvard professor Dr. Howard Gardner, who first conceived the theory of Multiple Intelligences 20 years ago:
“An hour-long standardized test may at certain points in history have served as a reasonable way of indicating who should be performing better at school or who is capable of military service or of performing at officer rank. But as we come to understand the variety of roles and the variety of ways in which scholastic or military accomplishments can come about, we need far more differentiated and far more sensitive ways of assessing what individuals are capable of accomplishing. In place of standardized tests, I hope that we can develop environments (or even societies) in which individuals’ natural and acquired strengths would become manifest – environments in which their daily solutions of problems or fashioning of products would indicate clearly which vocational and avocational roles most suit them.”
– Dr. Howard Gardner, ‘Multiple Intelligences’; revised, 2006; Basic Books
And as for the teeth-gnashing over FSA testing, it isn’t going to go away. The Ministry should do itself, the students it represents, and our society a favour in broadening the testing scope.