Parents Need a Report Card

Printer-friendly version
Appeared in the National Post, 10 June 2005
The purpose of the Fraser Institute’s Report Card on Ontario’s Elementary Schools is straightforward. Intended for parents, it contains an annual report on how individual schools are doing academically.

Each year, across Ontario, thousands of parents use the Report Card as a source of important information in selecting schools for their children. Later, they use it as an annual audit of the school’s effectiveness. When the Report Card’s findings raise concerns, parents can take those concerns to school principals.

In short, the Report Card helps parents become better informed about their children’s education. As in most sectors of our society, a better-informed, more demanding customer encourages service providers to either improve their offerings or lose their business. Surely, everyone would welcome something that contributes to the improvement of education in the province.

Well, perhaps not everyone. Each year, when the Report Card is released, we hear the same criticisms from some teacher’s union executives, school board officials and other players in the education sector. Of course, there is nothing wrong with constructive criticism, but the critics’ motives do seem somewhat suspect.

Four common criticisms of the Report Card are particularly unjustified.

The first is the claim that there is no purpose to be served by ranking schools. Critics say that the rankings are too simplistic to be meaningful, and that they demean everyone associated with low-ranking schools.

On the contrary. Ranking schools is in fact the first step toward improvement. Indeed, the greatest potential benefits flow to kids attending lower ranking schools. When a school receives a low ranking, it attracts attention. Principals and school officials ask each other why the school received a low ranking, and what can be done to improve it.

The truth can certainly hurt sometimes. Educators interested in improvement, however, will recognize the rankings for the opportunities they reflect.

The second common criticism is that the Report Card’s rankings are unfair because they don’t take into account the reasons for low academic achievement at a given school. The critics, however, do not consider that good academic results are what parents -- and society in general -- expect schools to deliver. This is why the Report Card’s ranking is based only on results. The promise of universally accessible education is that all children, regardless of the challenges they or their families might face, will acquire the skills and knowledge they need to live happy and productive lives as responsible citizens. With that promise in mind, it makes perfect sense to judge a school based on results.

Third, critics allege that the Report Card is too narrow in focus because it considers only academic achievement. This is a criticism with which we can, in part, agree. There are certainly other important aspects of elementary school performance, such as the development and maintenance of healthy, active lifestyles and an appreciation of the arts, which parents may wish the Report Card to measure. We would be glad to oblige, and have repeatedly challenged the education sector to provide data on other areas of school activity. To date, no such data have been made available. The very groups that criticize the Report Card’s academic focus are the same ones that could, should they wish, provide the data needed to broaden its scope.

Having said this, academics do form the core of virtually every school’s mission, and it is therefore entirely appropriate that the Report Card should focus on this area.

Finally, we are often told Ontario’s standardized tests -- the basis for our rankings -- do not give a complete picture of academic achievement. This is simply not the case.

This year’s Report Card offers six years of measurements on nine dimensions of academic performance. For each year, it uses these nine indicators to calculate an overall rating out of 10 for how well a given school is succeeding academically. Based on these ratings, the Report Card ranks each school for both the most recent year and the five preceding years. It includes a trend indicator so that it is easy to tell whether the school is improving or declining in each area.

The Report Card also includes a test participation rate index, an indicator of the size of the school, two measures of the effect of the school on its students’ results, and one indicator of the student body’s family characteristics. In all, 78 data points are provided for most schools so that parents will be able to contextualize the reported test results. This is hardly a narrow focus.

The Report Card is here to stay because parents want the kind of information it provides. Those educators who annually criticize it without offering reasonable ways to improve it do a disservice to parents, and those who ignore its contents do a disservice to their students.

Subscribe to the Fraser Institute

Get the latest news from the Fraser Institute on the latest research studies, news and events.