These government tests just do not add up

Columnist finds research that provides context for local students' apparent decline in math skills on FSA tests.

The Terrace Standard published an article on the declining math abilities of students attending Coast Mountain School District schools in its July 20, 2016 issue just as I was reading a rather distressing account by Diane Ravitch (Research Professor of Education at New York University) on the state of public education in the US.

Ravitch provided me with a context for The Terrace Standard’s article.

What is the public to make of a steady decline in Grade 7 math skills from 2011 to 2016? Have mathematics lessons or the material used been changed over that period?

Have the provincial government’s Foundation Skills Assessment (FSA) tests been adjusted? Have teachers lost dedication to their profession?

Or is it that the 2016 batch of Grade 7 students is not as capable as the 2011 batch was?

What exactly is the purpose of (FSA) tests? What do these tests tell us about the state of public education in our communities?

Ravitch has documented how standardized tests, focused on math and literacy and ignoring all else, lead to dangerously distorted school assessments: high tests scores identified good schools; low tests scores brought to light the bad ones.

Inevitably, teachers and principals were held responsible for either outcome.

Governmental strategy to improve education results in the U.S. was to pay bonuses to teachers and principals for good test results.

Persistent poor results could result in the downgrading or dismissal of teachers and school closures. Teachers unions were demonized.

Schools responded with an increased focus on the tests. Priority was given to math and literacy at the expense of all other subjects.

Science, art, social studies and history; all other subjects had to make allowances for the extra time needed to prepare students for math and literacy tests.

The focus shifted from education to training. Students were being coached in preparation for the tests.

A test in any one subject pulled from a curriculum, be that math, literacy, geography, science, history or any other subject does not tell us anything about the state of our community’s schools.

A math test may reveal that Student A knew the correct answer to a question while Student B did not, but it ignores the cause for the differing results.

Education is not an industrial process where production results may be improved by changes in the process.

The material being processed in schools is not uniform. Schools are dealing with human beings, our children and grandchildren.

The socio-economic environment into which a child is born and which constitutes the world for a child in its early years has an enormous impact on that child’s readiness for school.

The future life of a child whose starting point is a difficult one, socially and/or economically, will not be helped by concentrating his attention on producing good test results in math so that his school may achieve a better standing in the province.

There are multiple reasons not related in any way to teaching strategies that may account for differences in test results.

The challenge in education is to instil in children a desire to learn.

It does not matter whether Grade 7 students know the answers to a few FSA test questions at a specific time.

Maybe those students had a bad day. Maybe they will learn how to find the answers a few weeks after the testing date.

A snapshot is a poor indicator of those students’ abilities. What does matter is their eagerness, curiosity and determination to learn.

What matters is for them to experience the feeling of satisfaction associated with learning.

The number of students who met FSA test expectations in math tumbled from 53 to 32 percent in four years.

It is a mistake to judge our children’s abilities on these results and to make consequential decisions affecting the school’s curriculum on that basis.

Retired public sector administrator Andre Carrel lives in Terrace, B.C.