Saturday, December 13, 2008

B.C. teachers vote to boycott standardized tests unless changes are made

By Janet Steffenhagen
December 11, 2008

B.C. teachers signalled Thursday they're ready for a showdown with the Liberal government over annual standardized tests in reading, writing and math.

A solid majority of B.C. Teachers' Federation members voted this week in favour of a controversial plan for a province-wide boycott of the tests - known as the Foundation Skills Assessment and delivered in Grades 4 and 7 - unless the government agrees to stop testing every student and introduces random sampling instead.

"It's clear that teachers are ready to take a strong stance," BCTF president Irene Lanzinger said in an interview as her union announced that 85 per cent of teachers who voted were in favour of the boycott plan. Slightly more than half of the 41,000 members cast ballots.

Education Minister Shirley Bond also took a tough position, calling the decision "irresponsible" and saying she is prepared to consider concerns about the test itself, but has no intention of reverting to random sampling at a time when parents are seeking more information - not less - about their children's learning.

"I find it, frankly, quite unbelievable that we're looking at ultimatums instead of concentrating on every single child's achievement in this province," she said in an interview. "It's extremely disappointing."

Conducting the FSA tests is part of a teacher's job, Bond said, but she refused to comment on what she might do if BCTF members throughout the province refuse to take participate in the 2009 tests in February.

Lanzinger said teachers may be employees, but they are also professionals. "We are not going to do something that's bad for students and bad for public education."

Bond suggested the real driver is politics, given that the BCTF would like to see the Liberal government defeated in the May election. The FSA has been around for more than a decade and it was the former NDP government that changed it from a random-sample test to one that includes every student, except for small numbers excused under strict rules.

"The BCTF has made it clear that they are going to fight this government in the next election," the minister said. "This is not an acceptable way to do that."

The union has criticized the FSA for many years, saying it is too blunt an instrument to measure the achievement of an individual student or school but it can provide a picture of how well Grade 4 and 7 students are learning overall. For that, only a random-sample test is needed.

But the criticism has become more intense in recent years since the Fraser Institute began using the FSA results to rank schools. School rankings are loathed by teachers, principals, superintendents and trustees, but parents have mixed views.

NDP education critic Norm Macdonald, a former principal, refused to state his position on the tests, but said it's incumbent on the minister to meet with BCTF leaders to find a solution.
Both sides say they're willing to meet, but also noted they did so in recent weeks and weren't able to reach a solution.

The FSA results are important to parents, first nations leaders and everyone who wants to see improved achievement in B.C., Bond said, adding: "At the end of the day, this is about teachers doing their job."

Ken Thornicroft, an employment relations professor at the University of Victoria, agreed, saying a refusal to administer government tests amounts to insubordination and is grounds for discipline.

He noted a Sooke teacher who refused to deliver a test was given a letter of discipline for insubordination last year. The union filed a grievance but the issue has not yet been resolved.
"Ultimately, decisions around curriculum and so forth are for the minister of education," Thornicroft said. If there is no discipline for teachers who refuse to deliver tests, the government will have surrendered its managerial rights, he added.

The BCTF has proven to be a tough opponent, even in the face of potential penalties. In 2005, it staged an illegal strike that lasted 10 days and won a surprising level of public support.

The union is again asking members to take action that is highly likely to be illegal, and the outcome will depend on how much support it has from its membership, Thornicroft said, adding that the vote gives the union "a pretty strong mandate."

Now that it has its members' approval, the union plans to begin a public relations campaign to win parent backing.

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