A deeper look into school rankings
As a teacher I never paid much attention to the annual Fraser Institute Rankings; when our school did well, people applauded and when our school fared poorly, people raised questions. The interesting part for me was that we had the same staff and same curriculum, yet our rankings changed year over year.
When I became a principal, parents began to ask me about our FSA results and Fraser Institute Ranking. I cannot say that I am now actually interested in this harmful process but I do feel I need to comment.
The latest rankings state that our school is ranked 761/876 schools in the Province of BC. Lets look a bit deeper into the “data” the FI has used to determine this ranking. The primary piece of data that is used for these rankings are the results of our FSA tests that our grade 4’s wrote in February of 2009. Last year, parents had the option of requesting their children being exempted from writing this test; a letter was sent home from the Teachers’ Association explaining this. Many of our parents were concerned about the educational value of this test so only 27 out of 58 students wrote the test; LESS THAN HALF of our students were included in the data used for the FI rankings. On the FSA reports website, it states that only 29% of our students were meeting /exceeding expectations; in actuality, 17/27 students that wrote were meeting/exceeding. I am no statistician but I do know that 17/27 is much higher than 29%! In addition, a large number of the students that did not write were students who, on their report cards, were in the C+ or higher range – meaning that they were meeting expectations – so if they had written this test, it would have helped our results and our ranking, although it still would not change my view of the rankings.
Each year, the principal works with parents to develop the school goals. Our main goal is to help each student to ‘develop his/her unique talents and interest and leave our school as a confident learner’. Spending weeks on a test does not really align with our goal and we could not even use the resulting data from 2009 because we know that with that few students writing the tests, the data had little use. ( I will avoid sharing my views on the test itself but if you would like to discuss this with me, please contact me at any time!). Using this data to represent our school makes it seem like we have taught all our students for a number of years. We had 4 students register at the school in January and February of 2009 and they wrote the FSA for our school. How can we use the data that tests students who we have barely had the chance to work with? A more valid and reliable form of data to assess literacy would be to test the students who have actually been at our school for at least 60% of the education. If we looked at these students, they would have had the opportunity to obtain support to increase learning through a variety of teaching methods. (Having said this, if we tested our schools/students this way, we would also be testing the impact of remaining in the same school for a number of years.)
I am not opposed to using data/evidence to help determine school goals but this data must be valid, reliable and not used to rank schools. Michael Fullan, a respected author and educational researcher has been working with the Ministry of Education in Ontario to develop valid and reliable assessments; he has an agreement that any data from schools is NOT to be used to rank schools due to the harm that it creates in the system.
Looking at the rankings on a broader scale, schools are expected to maintain/improve their test results year over year; this becomes a challenge when, at our school, the school counseling position, learning assistance teaching support time, administrative time (principal and vice principal’s opportunity to work with students), special education assistant time, library teaching time, the lunch program, field trips, and learning resources have all been cut to an all-time low. At our school, we continue to do more with less and I am very proud of what all our staff and students achieve. Our successful art, physical education, science, music, culture, and extra-curricular programs are not included in the rankings and these are some parts of education, in addition to numeracy and literacy, that we truly value.
Someone once said that “ranking schools based on a test score is no different than ranking dentists based on the number of cavities”. What they were commenting on is the fact that so many other factors come in to play when assessing children and their schools: socio-economic status, access to resources, funding, student nutrition/health, urban vs suburban vs rural schools, student transition rate (how often students move to and from schools), parent education, home situations, etc. How can schools accurately be ranked when there are so many variables? I teach my grade 5 science students to always ensure their experiments are a “fair test”; even they would tell you that there are far too many variables to consider the assessment of schools (based on one test) a “fair test”. With this, comparing schools throughout the province is not helpful at all; can our school be effectively compared to a “choice” school in Abbotsford, a rural school in Fort St. James, a school in the British Properties, or a private school with a tuition of tens of thousand dollars a year? We always look at ways to improve our school but we do not look at schools that are that dissimilar and say ‘we need to do what they are doing’.
We have a school, like most others, that has a number of unique challenges; many of these all help to make our school so great! As the saying goes, “the greater the challenge, the greater the triumph!”. I, along with the staff, look forward to coming to school every day to learn alongside with the students and work with other staff, parents, and community members to continue to increase student learning.
There is no ranking for student happiness nor is there a ranking for true education (one that leads to a healthy, worthwhile life); what I can tell you is that Kent School is a great school and if you ever want to rank us, spend a week, month, or year with our staff and students – you will never rank us that low again. Better yet, if the Fraser Institute actually spent time in a school, they would soon realize that it is better to not rank at all.