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The B.C. government is continuing with its plan to have students write standardized tests this month, raising questions about how to balance the stress on children while also trying to assess the learning gaps caused by a disrupted year.

The province administers the annual test (called the Foundation Skills Assessment), which measures reading comprehension, writing and numeracy, to students in Grades 4 and 7. The teachers’ union is urging parents to withdraw their children from writing the test, which began last week.

Standardized tests have long been controversial. Supporters argue that they measure how well students are learning the curriculum and can help direct resources to struggling schools. Critics, however, worry that they are used by some to rank schools, and note teachers are better able to assess their students than through a test.

Aside from individual schools or school boards assessing learners, there is no data in Canada to show how students, especially those who previously struggled, have fared academically. Schools closed abruptly in the spring during the first wave, and since the fall many students have not had the stability they need to learn as outbreaks shutter classrooms and send children online for days.

Caitlin Clark, a spokeswoman for Education Minister Stephen Lecce, said Ontario has paused its standardized reading, writing and math testing this year for Grades 3 and 6 “in support of students’ success and their mental health.” Alberta is leaving it up to individual school districts to decide if students will participate in the provincial achievement test for Grades 6 and 9, and also made diploma exams optional.

However, Craig Sorochan, a spokesman for B.C.’s Ministry of Education, said standardized tests would provide an early snapshot of student learning that could help the province “monitor potential COVID-related impacts on student learning and readjust to support staff and students, if gaps are identified.

“Paying attention to individual student results allows educators to make decisions that can enhance success in school for children and ensure that no child, regardless of their background, is left behind,” Mr. Sorochan wrote in an e-mail.

The test is usually administered in the fall, but the ministry postponed it to this month to give districts time to prepare.

The BC Teachers’ Federation, which has long opposed the test, sent an open letter to parents last week, recommending that they withdraw their children from taking the test.

“With everything going on, we believe students’ physical, mental and emotional health should come before data collection,” the letter stated.

Teri Mooring, president of the union, said the test takes more than four hours to administer, and valuable teaching and learning time is being lost. She added that teachers already know which students in their classrooms are struggling – and that resources, not tests, are needed to support vulnerable students.

“Students who come from vulnerable or economically disadvantaged homes and communities tend to score lower. We don’t need another round of FSA tests to tell the same story year after year after year,” Ms. Mooring said.

Jennifer Heighton, who teaches Grades 4 and 5 at a school in Burnaby, said randomized tests would be a better use of time and resources. She said she felt “demoralized” when she heard the government was going ahead with the test this year despite all the concerns teachers had raised.

“We are trying our best to meet the mental-health needs of the kids during this pandemic time. ... It goes against what the government promised that should be happening – which is focusing on the children’s mental health,” she said.

But Kelly Gallagher-Mackay, an educational researcher and assistant professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said it is difficult to understand any disruption to academic progress without a consistent method of assessing students. A University of Alberta researcher has found that Grade 1 and 2 students in the Edmonton area were, on average, a year behind when they took a reading test in January. Other data on learning loss are mainly coming from the U.S. and internationally, Prof. Gallagher-Mackay said.

“We have good reason to suspect that there’s an inequality in learning loss,” she said. “It’s hard to develop a solid plan to address learning loss or learning gaps if you don’t have a relatively consistent way of assessing the problem or pinpointing the gaps.”

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