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  • Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Awkward activism
February 9, 2011 - 6:16am

Our stubborn refusal to go with the flow may have put our son in an awkward position. This month kids in grades 4 and 7 in British Columbia schools, both public and private, began taking the Foundation Skills Assessment (FSA) tests mandated by the provincial government, ostensibly as a tool for parents, teachers, and administrators to see whether children can do the basics such as reading and arithmetic. My husband and I felt strongly that our son should not take the FSA (a series of tests taken over several days) in part because we’re bothered by the way data are used inappropriately to rank schools throughout the province and because we don’t believe that the type of data collected (multiple choice as well as written essays, the marking of which is not necessarily standardized across schools) are not an appropriate way to measure a school’s performance. Along with his teacher’s assessment, we’re perfectly capable of seeing whether our son is meeting grade-level expectations. Any parents involved in their children’s education do the same.


We’ve had wonderful teachers in our five year experience at our kids’ school, so we’re inclined to trust the position of the provincial teacher’s union, the BC Teacher’s Federation, which opposes the test. Withdrawing our son from the FSA seemed to be a vote of support for our teachers as well.

Independent organizations such as the Fraser Institute use the publicly available FSA data to generate “school report cards” based on average test scores from schools throughout the province. It’s no surprise that real estate agencies refer to these school report card rankings to help clients purchase homes near the “right” schools. Private schools almost always rank highest, and interestingly schools from the polygamous community in Bountiful, BC, were among this year’s top ranked.

We’d talked with our son about the test, and he heard the stories and interviews on public radio about the test controversy. Of course he also heard our reactions to the news and to the commentators. He was thus well prepared to present our case to his teacher all on his own, before we’d even had a chance to speak with her. She sent us information from the teacher’s union, which she said she felt uncomfortable giving out unless parents first brought up their concerns (it wasn’t clear whether her reluctance to freely dispense the information was due to her union’s recommendation, because of directives from school administration, or because of personal reservations). However, she told me enthusiastically that I should feel free to spread the word to other parents. She supported our decision and assured us that our son should come to school as usual and that he’d have plenty to do without feeling left out since the students have to be tested in shifts.

That night I sent emails to a dozen or so parents of 4th graders for whom I had contact information to let them know that we’d decided to exclude our son from the testing and that their children wouldn’t be alone if they also wanted to have their children excused. In follow up conversations with friends, however, I was surprised that no one else planned to withdraw their kids. What I didn’t expect was the large number of parents who told me that the tests would be good practice for university (college). Or the practice test booklets available at a local big-box store. Sure, maybe my child will remember the experience of taking a test on a computer and filling in bubble forms and writing essays under time pressure. Of course test-taking experience will be useful. But he’s 9! And as university teachers my husband and I both want students who are good learners, not good test takers.

My son ended up being the only one of 25 students to abstain from the test yesterday. He had a bad day, and it wasn’t clear if that was because he felt awkward being the only kid not to be called to the computer lab for the online part of the test, or if his teacher piled on too much extra work to keep him busy. We weren’t able to get much out of him except that he wasn’t happy.

Did we put our son in a position where he felt singled out for a cause? I can’t help but feel a little isolated myself. We’re confident of our decision but it does feel awkward. I found myself questioning whether we should have gone along with everyone else. My husband and I have no expertise in education theory or the statistics behind these kinds of school assessments. Much of our decision was based on a gut-level response to news reports and interviews from newspapers and public radio, not on extensive research about the particular type of data gathered or about how it’s used by the province. I wonder if we took a stand on something we didn’t know enough about. The call for parents to boycott the test and the arguments used by the BC Teacher’s Federation are perhaps exaggerated and oversimplified. Nevertheless, sometimes it’s emotional responses (backed by the best information we can gather) that drive change. And I told my son that I was proud of him for taking a stand.


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