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 2011 annual report card.
In 2010, 30.1 per cent of exams were below the provincial standard, a modest improvement to 2006’s figure of 33 per cent. The average school rating was 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 2011, in an interview with Our Kids Media.
Even with the overall improvement, a lot more work needs to be done to meet provincial standards, Thomas says. In 2009-2010 academic year, for instance, Grade 3 students scored 2.8 out of 4 in writing, which was the same as last year’s average and an improvement from 2.7 in 2006. The average Grade 3 levels for reading and math stayed the same at 2.6 and 2.8 respectively for the past five years. However, the figures are 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 comprising mostly of public and Catholic schools, 18 private schools, about half of them native schools, are included in the report. 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.”
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.”
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.)
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.
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.)
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.”
For more information on finding, comparing and choosing schools, visit Canada’s Guide to Private Schools.