A think-tank’s rankings of B.C. schools has proven controversial, with some educators saying the results don’t provide a complete picture of schools in the province.
The Fraser Institute has offices across Canada and regularly ranks schools by province. Its Report Card on British Columbia’s Secondary Schools 2019 was released two weeks ago, and rates 251 schools.
It says its aim is to help parents choose the best school for their child and compel poorly performing schools to improve. The rankings are based on seven factors it calls “indicators,” including the average exam mark, percentage of arts exams failed, difference between male and female students’ results and the graduation rate.
Isn’t it common sense that the best schools are the ones with the best exam results? Some educators like Glen Hansman, former president of the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation, say other factors should be considered when judging school quality.
“A course teaching qualitative/quantitative research methodology at somewhere like a university would throw the whole thing [report] out,” says Hansman. “The primary problem is using this data in such a granular way, comparing schools to schools.”
One colourful analogy a teacher used in comparing schools is that it is similar to comparing pieces of fruit. They are all fruit but have very different characteristics. For instance, some schools have one G12 cohort, while others have many. Some have a relatively transient student population and others are near community resources that attract students with specific life challenges, such as medical facilities. Private schools, and schools located in affluent areas, seem to be rated highly in the report.
“The independent schools are able to provide smaller class sizes and modern equipment and all sorts of things that a public secondary school might not have. In a proper, controlled study you would account for that,” says Hansman.
The authors are bullish about their report’s accuracy, but the top 13 schools are private and only three schools in the top 20 are public.
“A lot of the [public school] students for whom there may be learning challenges, or life challenges that interfere with their learning, might not be present in the private schools in this province. That in itself skews the data and so I would just caution any family out there against giving any weight to these rankings,” adds Hansman.
Some contend that the rate of student improvement is often a better indicator of good teaching, especially in schools with few resources. After all, which is more impressive – the Red Sox cruising through the World Series or the Oakland As?
The report’s authors claim they have taken a range of factors into account and even considered gender balances in certain classes and the number of students with special educational needs or who speak English as a second language. In an introduction to the report, they write, “Comparisons are the key to improvement: making comparisons among schools is made simpler and more meaningful by the Report Card’s indicators, ratings, and rankings.”
However, critics of the report say schools are much more than just exam factories. In recent years, there has been a shift from rote learning, the short-term memorization of facts to pass an exam, to learning how to solve complex problems and manipulate information. The Education Ministry recognizes this, with the new secondary school assessments including both summative and formative methods. And for many parents, exam results, while important, are not the only mark of a good education. School culture, safeguarding policies, levels of student behaviour, youth mental health and a broad curriculum, including arts and sports, are often important considerations.
Some teachers believe the political aims of organizations producing reports that rate educational institutions should be taken into account when judging their reliability, to see if they provide unbiased and non-politicized results.
“It’s [the report] not a useful tool. Better to talk to the teachers and principal, see the students and view the school, as there’s a lot of amazing things happening in this province,” Hansman says.