Giving Parents a Clear, Unambiguous Picture

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posted May 13, 2006
Over the years, the Fraser Institute’s report cards -- now annually rating more than 5,500 schools in four provinces -- have become increasingly popular.

Last year alone, parents, teachers, school administrators and other interested individuals downloaded 330,000 copies of report card files from the institute’s website.

Despite its popularity, the report card is the subject of repeated criticism by members of the education establishment. This year, Dietmar Waber, a Richmond teacher (article at left), takes his turn and levels a variety of criticisms at the report card. As usual, many of the criticisms show a complete misunderstanding of the report card’s purpose.

Before annual school rankings first appeared in British Columbia in 1996, parents had no way to compare academic performance at their children’s school with that of previous years or with that of other nearby schools. It was that parental desire to be informed that the report cards were designed to satisfy.

Thus, it is entirely wrong to suggest that the report cards are simply a marketing effort mounted by the Fraser Institute in support of private schools. If that were the case, why would the institute bother to publish its annual report card on Ontario’s elementary schools when, of the 2,850 schools ranked, only seven were private and just one of them made the top 100?

Waber complains that comparing private schools to public schools is unfair because the former can be choosy about the students that they enrol. While it is true that B.C.’s Independent School Act does not prohibit such selectivity, there is no evidence to suggest that any but a small minority of the province’s private schools select their students on the basis of academic ability.

In any event, given that the report cards are intended to help parents compare all the schools that they are interested in, it is quite natural that as many schools as possible -- selective and non-selective, public and religious or secular private -- should be included in the report cards.

On the other hand, Waber is right when he asserts that the report cards’ overall rating is based solely on objective measures of academic achievement and does not take into account the characteristics of the school’s students.

However, he does not realize that they are specifically designed in this way to ensure a clear, unambiguous picture of how each school is doing academically.

Waber also disputes another aspect of the calculation of the report cards’ overall rating. He uses last year’s report on Vancouver’s Grandview elementary to suggest that any school at which only 20 per cent of the Foundation Skills Assessments were determined to have been below expectations should have received a higher overall rating than the 4.3 (out of 10) that Grandview was awarded in 2004. He ignores the fact that Grandview performed below the average not only on the percentage of tests below expectations, but on all of the other six indicators used to calculate its overall rating.

Waber should have looked more carefully at the report card’s results. If he had, he would undoubtedly have noticed that Grandview seems to be enjoying improvement in its overall rating over time. In 2001, the school’s overall rating was just 1.6 (out of 10); in 2002 it rose to 5.6, before settling back to 4.3 in 2004. In 2005, it posted a very strong 7.0 (out of 10). Among other improvements, it reduced its below-expectations percentage by nearly 50 per cent. Grandview’s apparent improvement over time is all the more remarkable considering its high proportions of both ESL and special needs students.

The report cards are one source of information that parents use to compare schools when they are choosing one for their kids. For parents with kids already enrolled at school, they offer an annual audit of how their children’s school is doing in academics. While the report cards continue to attract criticism from members of the education sector, no alternative has been introduced to date.

Perhaps, the truth is that some members of the education community would rather see the clock turned back a decade to the time when parents were unable to find out what was going on in schools and, as a result, weren’t in a position to ask any uncomfortable questions.

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