British Columbia

School trustees call for end to 'harmful and unfortunate' school rankings

The 2017 Foundation Skills Assessment is taking place for elementary students in Grade 4 and Grade 7 right now, but the B.C. School Trustees Association is calling for the results to be kept from the public.

Premier Horgan said he has been clear regarding his concerns the rankings are unfair to schools

The Fraser Institute's school rankings started in the 1990s and are based on public data released by the provincial government each year. (CBC)

The B.C. School Trustees Association is asking the government not to release the results of provincial skills assessments of elementary school students this fall.

Each year, the government makes the Grade 4 and Grade 7 school-level Foundation Skills Assessment results public and the Fraser Institute uses the data to rank schools.   

The BCSTA sent an open letter to Education Minister Rob Fleming on Wednesday, outlining concerns it has about how the data is used, calling the practice unnecessary as well as "harmful and unfortunate."

"There is testing that teachers do on an ongoing basis and that's what parents should be looking at; how their individual child is doing," said Gordon Swan, the president of the BCSTA.

Assessing quality education

The association said the data should still be available to parents and school boards but called the practice of ranking schools inherently unfair, because some schools have a higher percentage of students that are less likely to perform well academically.

"Many disadvantaged students don't perform well on the test," said Swan. "Aboriginal students, students with special needs, immigrant students when their primary language isn't English and students from impoverished backgrounds.

Students who struggle academically are over represented in economically challenged communities and in specialty schools that are set up to support refugees and immigrants, students with cognitive differences or learning disabilities, according to Swan.

The Fraser Institute has been publishing the data for about 20 years and argues it's essential information for the public and parents to make important decisions.

Peter Cowley, the director of school performance studies, said the group had looked at the numbers over the last two decades and found that 20 to 30 per cent of the differences in test results are associated with parental income.

"That leaves somewhere around 75 per cent of the differences not associated with income," he said.

"I would suggest, at least, that the quality of the teaching in each school is a factor in how well the school does. And if it isn't, we've got a much bigger problem."

Cowley disagreed that the ranking system is harmful and explained that parents are some of the strongest advocates for improving under-performing schools.

However, he admits direct comparisons of small schools to large schools or rural schools to urban schools is not very useful.

He said the institute has made improvements to how it presents the data and said parents are more than able to properly interpret and use the data.

'Damaging to learners'

A 2014 report compiled by a government advisory group on provincial assessment came to a similar conclusion about the FSA results and how they are used.

That report said FSA is "used to make judgments that go beyond its mandate," and "groups such as the Fraser Institute misinterpret and publicize results in ways that are damaging to classrooms and schools and therefore damaging to learners."

It went on to say that assessment is important in order to hold the education system accountable and ensure it is supported to help individual students succeed.

Similar sentiments were echoed by Premier John Horgan on Wednesday, when he was asked about FSA exams.

He said students "should be focused on a whole host of other issues, not writing tests that largely end up being used by think tanks to grade schools."

Horgan said the exam results were used for political purposes and the ranking system meant schools were not on a level playing field.

With files from CBC Radio One's On the Coast and Farrah Merali


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