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

Susan Notes:

Finally, an act of massive
teacher professionalism. We can only wish for
such union leadership in this country.


By Janet Steffenhagen

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.

— Janet Steffenhagen
Vancouver Sun


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