Fraser Institute 2011 Rankings: Ontario Elementary Schools Improve But Are a ‘Long Way from an A’

Ontario elementary students overall have scored slightly higher in standardized tests over the past five years, with girls performing better than boys in reading and math for most schools, but there is still room for improvement in cases where children are not meeting provincial standards, according to the Fraser Institute’s annual report card.

Fraser Institute Ontario Elementary Schools Report Card 2011

The Fraser Institute’s 2011 annual report card found Ontario elementary schools slightly performed better in standardized tests over the last five years. iSTOCK PHOTO

The rate of students meeting the provincial standard has been steadily increasing for the last five years. This years report card shows 28.4 per cent below the provincial standard, a modest improvement from 30.1 per cent of exams in 2010 and 2006’s figure of 33 per cent. The average school rating, however, has consistently stayed 6 out of 10.

“There’s always room for improvement but we’re a long way from getting an A,” says Michael Thomas, associate director of school performance studies at the Fraser Institute and co-author of the Report Card on Ontario’s Elementary Schools, in an interview with Our Kids Media.

The results can also be viewed at www.compareschoolrankings.org, an interactive website where parents can compare Ontario elementary schools on nine indicators of academic performance based on province-wide testing results.

Even with the overall improvement, a lot more work needs to be done to meet provincial standards, Thomas says. Since 2009, for instance, Grade 3 students scored 2.8 out of 4 in writing, which was an improvement from 2.7 in 2008. The average Grade 3 levels for reading have improved by 0.1 point in the last two years, and math has stayed the same at  2.8  for the past five years. However, the figures are all below the provincial standard score of 3.

Despite an all-out effort on the part of the Ontario government to increase test scores – gobs of money, secretariats and turnaround teams, full-day kindergarten, and so forth – the report card shows students are not learning much more, if at all, says Malkin Dare, president of the Society for Quality Education. (Read more in Dare’s article.)

Out of 2,733 schools included in the report, the majority is comprised of public and Catholic schools. Only a handful of private schools participate since Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) standardized testing on reading, writing and math for Grade 3 and 6 (used in the report to measure schools’ progress) is not mandatory for private schools in Ontario and the costs to take the tests may be a factor, Thomas says. The Alberta, Quebec and B.C. governments provide public dollars to private schools, so private schools in those provinces are required to take standardized tests and thus are included in Fraser Institute’s report cards.

“These are not exit exams – standardized tests are intended as diagnostic type tests to ensure school boards are delivering the curriculum and to identify if schools or students need help,” Thomas says. “These tests are intended to measure students’ ability and knowledge of the curriculum.”

Moreover, the report card found that the  he Reading gender gap favoured females at 73.6% of schools, males at 12.9% of schools, and was even at 13.5% of schools. The Math gender gap favoured males at 32.4% of schools, females at 51.3% of schools, and was even at 16.3% schools. The gender gap indicator measures the difference in performance between girls and boys. The overall gender gap for reading narrowed while for math it stayed the same over five years.

Thomas says many low-income schools included in the report card have improved. This year, of the 20 Ontario elementary schools showing the fastest academic improvement over the past five years, 10 were public schools where the parental income is below average. At eight of those schools, special needs students account for more than 30 per cent of school enrollment.

Top Ontario Elementary Schools for 2011-2012

St. Michael's Choir School in Toronto was among the top-performing schools in the Fraser Institute's 2011 elementary school rankings, scoring a perfect 10 last year.

St. Michael's Choir School in Toronto was among the top-performing schools in the Fraser Institute's 2011 elementary school rankings, scoring a perfect 10 in 2010.

Debating the Value of Rankings

Some experts question the value of ranking schools based on academic EQAO or standardized testing in helping parents choose the best schools and helping schools improve.

“I think ranking schools is, at best, fatuous and, at worst, harmful,” says Charles Ungerleider, professor of the Sociology of Education at the University of British Columbia’s Department of Educational Studies. “I am concerned about comparing schools with one another.  The practical limits to improving student learning outcomes includes recognition that in Canada approximately 70 per cent of the variation in student learning is not attributable to school factors, but to student, family, and community characteristics.”

For instance, these factors include parenting, parents’ education, socioeconomic background and other influences outside the school directly and indirectly affecting student academic achievement, Ungerleider says. The cumulative impact of school factors is typically less than 30 per cent, and most differences in academic achievement actually occur among students within, rather than between, schools, which the Fraser Institute report card doesn’t measure, he points out.

“This fact has escaped the attention of the public, politicians, and even education practitioners who invest importance in the crude and misleading comparisons of schools undertaken by organizations such as the Fraser Institute and the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies,” he says.

The Fraser Institute justifies its ranking as an aid to parental choice of schools, Ungerleider says, believing that parents will seek to maximize educational benefits for their children when choosing the schools their children attend, but the research indicates that parents choose schools on other grounds. (Read more in Ungerleider’s article.)

While it’s good news that Ontario schools overall have improved, we need to find out if it’s because they’re being taught better, more resources are provided to them or teachers are teaching more to the test so that their students will perform well in those exams, says Roland Sintos Coloma, assistant professor of sociology and equity studies in education and co-director of the Centre for Integrative Anti-Racism Studies at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

“Many of these exams don’t necessarily indicate critical thinking or problem-solving skills that students have so I’m not necessarily convinced that these sorts of jumps necessarily translate to better learning and better teaching from students and teachers,”  Coloma says.

The tests may not  necessarily be statistically accurate, he adds, since they measure different students’ progress. Coloma recommends tracking how individual students do over time within a school.

Do Report Cards Tell an Accurate Story?

Sharon Murphy, professor at the faculty of education at York University whose research specialty includes assessment and literacy learning, questions what the Fraser Institute rankings tell us since she believes there’s not a practical difference in the schools that rank close to each other, and  large-scale achievement tests are only one sample of behaviour of a particular time. “I think rankings themselves can be misleading,” Murphy says. “That’s why sometimes schools or parents get upset because rankings don’t tell the whole story , or the whole picture of what a school is.”

She gives an example of the top five ranked Olympic athletes who may run faster or slower on different days but, practically speaking, deliver the same performance.

“The question is how the school that is first is significantly different than the school that’s second,” she says. “I think we should do away with rankings and come up with a system that’s much broader.”

Although it can be complicated, she suggests that instead of using a single indicator, understanding assessment in terms of the demographics and using measurements such as classroom assessments, close analysis of reading and errors, and observationally-based indicators of valuable skills needed in today’s world such as public-speaking and collaboration would give a more complete and accurate profile of the student.

She says tests can also be biased as those who develop it tend to belong to the middle-class, and thus people who do well are those whose ideas and knowledge match those of the developers.

Murphy encourages parents to look beyond the rankings to the bigger picture from EQAO data, such as on how much reading students do for pleasure, which can reveal if your child’s school is interested in promoting more than high test scores. (Read more in Murphy’s article.)

‘Stigmatizing Schools and Neighbourhoods’

The rankings further stigmatize schools and neighbourhoods where there is poverty and visible minorities, says the University of Toronto’s Coloma.

The rankings don’t necessarily tell us something new, he says, and instead confirm that in predominantly white middle and upper middle class neighbourhoods, students perform well in EQAO and other standardized exams while students do worse in neighbourhoods with mostly working-class poor and visible minorities.

Coloma says he’s not opposed to student testing but is concerned about how the results of the rankings are being used. “If the rankings could be connected to the ways in which governments or schools better support underperforming students and those particular communities, I’m all for that. I just haven’t seen that happen,” he says.

While Coloma hasn’t seen any research so far on a reward-and-punishment system in Canada based on EQAO and standardized exams, he points out that the U.S. government takes more money away from underperforming schools and gives more funding to schools that are performing well.  “If it’s primarily used to say ‘I’m in a better school and you’re in a crappy school,’ or ‘my kid is better than your kid’ then it leads to a dangerous condition which is not about learning but truly about competition.”

The Quest to Improve Schools

If the goals of the rankings are school improvement and serving the needs of students, there are better methods, says George Briggs, executive director of the Conference of Independent Schools of Ontario (CIS).  The Fraser Institute might serve education better if it allocated its ranking resources to developing templates for school improvement programs developed and monitored by school communities (including teachers, parents, administrators and, where appropriate, students), and supporting schools in their goals, he argues, rather than generating questionable rankings. (Read more in Briggs’ article.)

In response to the arguments questioning the value and usefulness of the report cards, the Fraser Institute’s Thomas says the rankings make it easy for parents to make sense of the information available and compare how schools are doing academically, including those that are underachieving or improving dramatically. “I’ve never seen anyone show a better way,” he says. “The public has the right to know how schools are doing and the report card is an easy way to know.”

Michael Zwaagstra, co-author of What’s Wrong with Our Schools: And How We Can Fix Them and city councillor at Steinbach, Manitoba, believes such rankings are a useful way of getting information about schools out to parents and other interested citizens.

“While no ranking can convey everything about a school, these school report cards help get people talking about how our schools are doing,” he says. “They also provide an incentive to schools to improve the quality of their instructional environment.”

Zwaagstra says the rankings are an important component of holding schools accountable for their performance.

“It’s easy for schools to become sidetracked with various new initiatives and social causes and lose focus on the key thing, which is student learning,” he explains. “When schools know that data about student performance will be made public, they have a good reason to remain focused on the academic basics.”

TOP SCHOOLS IN FRASER INSTITUTE’S ONTARIO RANKINGS (SEE THE COMPLETE LIST)

(Schools are ranked according to their academic performance as measured by the overall rating out of 10, shown on the right-hand side, for the school year 2009/2010.)

  1. Hillmount (Toronto) – 10.0(2011-2012), 10.0(Last five years)
  2. Kennedy (Toronto) – 10.0, 10.0
  3. Seneca Hill (Toronto) – 10.0, 9.9
  4. St Justin Martyr (Unionville) – 10.0, 9.9
  5. William Berczy (Unionville) – 10.0, 9.9
  6.  Our Lady of Perpetual Help (Toronto) – 10.0, 9.8
  7. Arbour Glen (Toronto) – 10.0, 9.7
  8. John XXIII (Arnprior) – 10.0, 9.7
  9. Pine Grove (St Catharines) – 10.0, 9.6
  10. Deer Park (Toronto) – 10.0, 9.1
  11. RL Beattie (Sudbury) – 10.0, 9.1
  12. Edward Johnson (Guelph) – 10.0, 9.0
  13. Havergal College (Toronto) – 10.0, n/a
  14. Islamic Foundation (Toronto) – 10.0, n/a
  15. Sathya Sai (Toronto) – 10.0, n/a

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What do you think about the Fraser Institute report cards? Do you place much importance to such school rankings? Is it a good way to help schools and students improve? What are effective ways to measure the success of schools and students? Join the debate and tell us your views in the Comments section below.


About Christl Dabu

Christl Dabu is the former editor at Our Kids Media (www.ourkids.net). Before her proverbial plane landed at Our Kids, she had worked as an editor at the Toronto Star, and she had been country-hopping in Egypt, China and some dozen other countries and 40 cities ... to Write, Edit and Travel. She encourages you to regularly check out the blog and the Our Kids Newsletter for parents and Dialogue Newsletter for educators for fresh web-exclusive content. Check out Our Kids on Facebook (www.facebook.com/ourkidsnet). Follow Our Kids (@ourkidsnet)and Christl (@ChristlJZDabu) on Twitter.

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