To Test or Not to Test: FSA Controversy Reignites in BC

January 20, 2011 Updated: October 1, 2015

B.C.'s controversial Foundation Skills Assessment has for years been a bone between the Ministry of Education and the B.C. Teachers' Federation. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
B.C.'s controversial Foundation Skills Assessment has for years been a bone between the Ministry of Education and the B.C. Teachers' Federation. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
B.C.’s controversial Foundation Skills Assessment (FSA)—reading, writing, and math tests that take place annually in grade 4 and 7 classrooms—began this week, again amid heated debate as in the past.

For years, the assessment has been a bone of contention between the Ministry of Education and the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, which says the tests are expensive to conduct, take time and resources away from the classroom, and are misused to rank schools and promote privatization.

In a letter to parents last week, the BCTF encouraged parents to excuse their children from the test, which includes a form for parents to fill out informing the principal the child will not be attending.

In its letter to parents, however, the ministry says the FSA is not optional and helps the province and school districts evaluate how well students are achieving basic skills and make plans to improve student achievement.

The BCTF’s main concern is that the results of the test are published and used by organizations such as the Fraser Institute to rank schools by performance and undermine public education. This takes resources away from struggling schools, as parents rush to get their kids enrolled in the best schools, the union claims.

They also point out that the “one-size-fits-all” standardized test may ignore the unique strengths and special programs offered by some schools, and being designated as the “worst school in the province” damages the students’ self-esteem and humiliates schools and communities.

An in-depth CBC investigation revealed that the “worst school in the province” in 2005, a small school in Prince Rupert, actually turned out to be one of the best when socioeconomic status was taken into account.

But Education Minister Margaret MacDiarmid said the tests identify areas where students excel and where they struggle.

“It allows you to work together with your child’s teacher to identify problems and take action early on, so that your child will be successful later on in their schooling,” she said in the letter.

It seems the anti-FSA campaign may be having an effect, as parents are increasingly opting out. The Vancouver Sun reports that last year that 37 percent of Grade 4 students and 39 percent of Grade 7 students in Vancouver did not participate in the tests. Province-wide 19 percent of students did not participate in testing last year, up from 12 percent in 2009.

This significant absenteeism raises doubts about the basic accuracy of the FSA, and the polarized debate is frustrating for many parents caught in the middle.

The B.C. Federation of Parent Advisory Councils has developed an information kit in an effort to help parents sort out fact from fiction in the politicized debate.

Meanwhile, there has been some discussion that efforts will be made to bring all partner groups together to critically re-evaluate the test, but no mention of progress has been reported to date.