School rankings raise many questions
By Antonella Artuso, Queen's Park Bureau Chief
First posted: Sunday, February 28, 2016 06:30 AM EST
Loretto College Grade 9 students use tablets to do their math lessons in class. (Jack Boland/Toronto Sun/Postmedia Network)
Check out the Fraser Institute’s rankings www.compareschoolrankings.org
The annual Fraser Institute ranking of schools raises more questions than it answers.
And that’s a good thing, says Peter Cowley, the think-tank’s director of school performance studies.
Why are 67 Ontario secondary schools showing steady and significant improvement in student performance on standardized EQAO tests?
Why are 58 Ontario high schools in unchecked decline?
Why are so many schools in northern Ontario and in smaller communities performing worse year after year than their urban counterparts?
Why are girls improving in math, and boys dropping so far behind in literacy?
Good educators aren’t afraid to go looking for the answers to these and other tough questions raised by the annual list that ranks schools against each other, Cowley says.
“This whole ranking system, if it did nothing else but document improvement, it would be well worth doing,” he said. “I could not be more evangelical about this. It does not matter where a school starts, it simply doesn’t matter ... if you’re moving up, that’s the only thing you can do.
“Every single school in the country should be looking at ways to improve student outcome. It’s as simple as that.”
Yet, teacher unions and many educators argue it’s wrong to compare one school against another in a ranking system.
The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) has called the ranking “confusing” and an inaccurate assessment of the learning environment in any individual school.
Education Minister Liz Sandals said the information that flows from EQAO testing is already put to good use by the system to share best practices and improve student outcomes.
Boards are expected to look carefully at which schools have shown progress, which schools are slipping, and analyze what factors are at play, she said.
“But to rank the schools based on the results actually doesn’t make any sense,” Sandals said. “Because it could be that you’ve got a school that’s not done well at all and has made a significant improvement year over year, or over the course of two or three years, but they may still not be very high in the rankings because they’ve come from really struggling to doing OK.”
The value in standardized testing is looking carefully at the results and dissecting them, she said.
“Just don’t think by stringing them up in rank order that you’ve actually learned something — that’s my problem,” she said.
Doretta Wilson, executive director of the Society for Quality Education, sees value in the Fraser Institute’s rankings and analysis.
“It does give some other contextual information ... to look for those outliers and ask further questions,” Wilson said. “Why are some of those schools that seem that they should be performing poorly actually performing very well?”
There are exceptional teachers who make a difference in the classroom, but it’s not obvious that “best practices” are being studied and shared across the education system, she said.
For all the criticism of school rankings by the “usual suspects,” parents routinely check the list to see how their local school is doing, she said.
The school rankings website gets two million hits a year across the country, Cowley said.
One Toronto real estate agent posted last September that the Fraser Institute’s report is like a “cheat sheet” for parents when house shopping.
“Agree with it or not, the stark reality is that many Gen X and Gen Y buyers today refuse to see a house because it falls outside of a desirable school district. Case in point: I’ve had clients (clients without children even) decline the showing on a perfectly nice house because it fell outside of what they considered a good school district,” the agent said on her website. “Which says to me that it’s not enough to just be a beautiful house anymore. Now the demand is for the beautiful house IN the top scoring school districts. Don’t get mad at me.”
Cowley said the rankings are a tool for parents as well as educators, but one would have to be “nuts” to buy a house based on one year’s result — that’s why the Fraser ranking looks at five-year trends.
The ranking is the only independent school-to-school measure available to parents, he said.
“If parents find themselves in a situation where their children are either in consistently low performing schools and/or they’re not improving, then they should be asking really tough questions of the principal,” Cowley said.
If school boards are using EQAO results to learn best practices, like Wilson, Cowley hasn’t seen it in action.
Some problems have gotten worse, instead of better, he said.
EQAO testing has shown a large and persistent gender gap in Ontario schools.
While girls are now almost at parity with boys in math — they had previously trailed — the number of boys passing the Grade 10 literacy test on their first try compared to girls keeps dropping.
“If we look at 2011, for instance, there was a 7.7% difference in the percentage of kids who passed on their first attempt for the girls and for the guys,” Cowley said. “That’s quite a large percentage even then. That percentage point difference has moved from 7.7% up to 9.2% over the last five school years.”
“All this report does is produce the measures ... and it’s important to ask with the gap, ‘Do we care?’ And we might,” Cowley said.
Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown, whose mother is a retired school principal, said the provincial government is reluctant to embrace any measurement of performance, including in education, where it doesn’t have a “winning story.”
“Frankly, every government department should have performance measurements so I’m not adverse to having them in education at all,” Brown said.
Parents who want to see how their local school stacks up can check out Fraser Institute’s rankings at compareschoolrankings.org.
But this year’s rankings — based on Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) standardized tests — won’t cover Ontario elementary schools.
A work-to-rule campaign by the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario led to the cancellation of EQAO’s Grade 3 and 6 reading, writing and math tests last year in English public schools.
Peter Cowley, the think-tank’s director of school performance studies, said that loss meant that about two-thirds of the schools in the ranking were eliminated.
The decision was made not to publish the rankings for just Catholic and francophone elementary schools, he said.
“That might be very misleading,” Cowley said.
Fraser Institute combines the results of the standardized Grade 9 math test and Grade 10 Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test to determine high school rankings.
The Grade 9 math assessment wasn’t administered in the Durham, Peel and Rainbow (Sudbury area) district school boards because of an Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation job action.
Some schools in the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board also didn’t participate in the testing.
There were enough results to proceed with the high school rankings although some large boards are missing, Cowley said.
The rankings also provide five-year trends at each school, but those will be impacted in future years because of the missing data, he said.