Ranking the rankings

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When the Fraser Institute issued its first report card on British Columbia's elementary schools, Meadowridge School in Maple Ridge, BC found itself at the top of the list.

Delighted? Not at all. "I was appalled," says headmaster Hugh Burke.

He fired off a letter to the Vancouver Sun, declaring "We reject our ranking, as any good school will. I would be most suspicious of any school that actually boasted about such results."

The Fraser Institute, a West Coast free enterprise-oriented think-tank, relying mainly on provincial test results, has gone on to issue regular report cards ranking public and private schools in British Columbia, Alberta, Quebec, and Ontario. But, almost unanimously, private schools continue to reject the idea of ranking schools according to academic achievement.

What's going on here? We're used to ranking everything from automobiles to movies, so why not schools? Often it's the first question parents ask: Which is the best school? Sorry, wrong question.

"There is no such thing as the number one school," says Gordon Allan, associate admissions director at St. George's School in Vancouver.* "But there is such a thing as the number one school for your child."

It's an issue private schools deal with all the time: "We have parents ready to write a cheque," says Jack Rice, principal of The Montessori Country School in Nobleton, Ontario, "and we say, 'Whoa! Is this the right school for your child' "

"Every private school is created by reason of being unique," says Tam Matthews, headmaster of Ashbury College in Ottawa. "Ranking a school is like asking a parent to rank their children. Every child has unique gifts."

"I don't think (ranking) is useful," says Susan Hazell, executive director of the Canadian Association of Independent Schools. "I see so many errors and omissions (in the rankings). How can you compare a special needs school with Upper Canada College! It's comparing apples with oranges."

It's even difficult, she says, to compare apparently similar academic private schools "because of subtle differences of culture."

That doesn't mean schools are not accountable, Hazell adds. "I encourage parents to visit and compare. If the school says 100 percent of its students went on to higher education, did they get into the university of their choice" If the school says it has a great hockey or rowing program, who are the coaches? What is the track record? If it's music, ask to see the music room. Do they have special time for practising?"

If you pick a school on the strength of rankings, she says, "you are really not thinking about your child." Aim instead for a school "where your child is going to be so turned on they are going to love going there every day. My hope is that, at the end of their secondary school career, they are going to have a lifelong love of learning."

Peter Cowley, Fraser's director of school performance studies, accuses critics of the rankings of arrogance. "You can understand why a professional group would be reluctant to be ranked," he says.

"I give parents a good deal of credit for their capacity to understand what (rankings) do and don't do." He says the Fraser report cards "celebrate excellence."

(The Institute's 2004 British Columbia secondary school ratings take eight factors into account, including dropout rates, gender differences and percentage of English as a Second Language students. Other factors, he agrees, may affect students' lives, "and if we can find data that refers to those abilities, that may be included" in future rankings.)

Hugh Burke of Meadowridge doesn't buy it. The Fraser Institute, he declares, "is applying a free-market ideology to education, where all that counts is the ability to pass tests."

It made him uncomfortable that Meadowridge was being compared with public schools in Vancouver, "where teachers are on the phone in the evening to make sure the kids come to school next day. Our kindergarten classes have only 13 children. Our kids have 150 hours more instruction a year than public schools. You can't compare. A good school is one that does well with the material."

Like Hazell, he advises, "Go look at the school. Notice what is on the walls, look at behaviour during recess, look at how the kids respond to adults. For me, it's always about the child, the family and the fit."

Ranking, Burke says, "narrows the focus away from the best interest of the child and towards the best interest of the school." And, he warns, "the school with the highest test score may be the worst school for your child."

Mark Kennedy, Eastern Canada director for the Association of Christian Schools International, is one private educator who does not object to rankings. But he says the government figures on which Fraser bases its lists are not detailed enough. Much better, he says, is the Canadian Achievement Test (CAT) used by many public and private schools.

These scores, he says, are especially important to some immigrant parents for whom the academic achievements of their children are imperative.

CAT tests are used at The Montessori Country School. While the results, says Jack Rice, "are very flattering to us, I hesitate to use them. We are trying to develop self-esteem and independent learners, so how do you measure that?"

Students from some 30 countries attend Ashbury, many the children of diplomats posted to Ottawa. How do they find out about the school? "About 80 percent by word of mouth," says Tam Matthews. The International Baccalaureate provides a measure of the school's effectiveness. Even so, many parents spend more time picking the school than they do picking a house.

If they still get it wrong, "the wonderful thing about independent schools," Matthews says, "is that you can make the decision with your feet by walking away."

(*until 2017, when he left this position)
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