I promised I wouldn’t do it. But here it is.
It is a bit like Groundhog Day – if it is May school rankings are out and the education community is screaming foul. And yet we do this dance over and over. At a different time in my life I was a weekly columnist at the Richmond News, and here is one of many posts I wrote on school rankings – this one in 2003.
I actually thought we had broken the cycle. School rankings have received far less attention in recent years, but this year, they seem to have had a resurgence. In so many ways, we have moved to a post-standardized world in British Columbia, further differentiating ourselves from many U.S. jurisdictions. We live in a world of increasing personalized learning and one less reliant on ranking and sorting.
I couldn’t let the recent stories go without sharing my view. So, I penned some thoughts on the value of ranking schools. Here is a piece I shared with staff and parents in West Vancouver last week:
School success much more than a number
Some readers may have seen a recent front page article in the North Shore News about the annual Fraser Institute Elementary Report Card School Rankings, released in early May. Ecole Cedardale, one of our two French Immersion schools, was the only public school in the province to score top marks. While we are pleased with the result, the rankings provide only a small sliver of information about what our community values in schools.
The Fraser Institute has been compiling data from Grade 4 and Grade 7 Foundation Skills Assessment to produce reports on student achievement, in an effort to help parents decide which schools perform best academically. They produce a similar report for high schools, based on the previous year’s average examination results in Grade 10, 11 and 12 courses that include a mandatory provincial exam.
These reports reflect an old view of education: that we should compare schools and compete with one another. Our philosophy and success is based on a new model – that our schools are all connected, and should work together to improve. Collaboration — within districts, among districts and around the globe — is the key to building a stronger education system. Student learning is not about labeling winners and losers.
We appreciate the dilemma that a parent new to education — or new to a region — may be facing when they choose a school for their child, and know that it’s tempting to rely on a number in a complex world with so many choices. But educators know that using test scores to measure school performance is deeply flawed. It may provide some interesting insight at the student level, but beyond that, the measures tell us very little. It is just silly, for example, to look at one year’s scores and make broad generalizations about a school’s achievement. Cohorts of students are different each year – what is interesting to me is individual students’ progress over time.
If there was one piece of valuable information I might glean from the data, it is the small gap between our highest and lowest performing schools. While individual school performance in the West Vancouver School District goes up and down year over year, the range in results in our district is the narrowest in Metro Vancouver. This year, for example, there is only a 2.4 point gap between the highest and lowest test scores. Given the consistency in data between our schools, and over time, the message that emerges is that all West Vancouver School District schools are consistently strong achieving schools on tests in core skill areas.
So how does this link to selecting a school? The best choice for most families is the neighbourhood school. That is the choice my wife and I have made for our four kids. We know that the community connections and friends in the neighbourhood are good reasons to make a local school choice. That said, I know there is increasing choice for families. As you look at schools – whether for elementary or high school, please don’t decide based on a test score.
Instead, we ask parents to visit our schools, meet with teachers, administrators and students, learn about the school’s unique programs and opportunities, and make a decision based on the right fit for their child. In West Vancouver, we offer a broad range of programs, and with strong academic performance well in hand from one end of the district to the other, we successfully focus on providing a broad range of educational and programming options that provide a richly woven learning experience for every child.
It has been interesting to see some of the responses that I have got. People seem surprised that I would say anything, given the high standing of West Vancouver schools. It seems that I should take the approach that I am opposed to awards except for the ones we are winning.
Let there be no mistake in what I am saying – we do have outstanding public schools in our district. And being a top performer in British Columbia in reading, writing, and numeracy is reassuring. I would be thrilled to have my own children in any of our schools. And core academics are very important – as important as ever.
But schools are more complicated that simple rankings.
I am heartened that other high achieving schools and systems, like Vancouver’s Crofton House, share our view. Their head of schools Patricia Dawson was quoted in the Globe & Mail last week, “We struggle with the rankings. We greatly appreciate that the public at large, and certainly a broader parent community, looks at those rankings and puts a lot of stock in them. We do not.”
I do recognize the irony that by writing posts like this I am actually giving more attention to the rankings that I am encouraging people to give less attention.
So, I won’t blog about them again. I promise.
And my offer stands – visit our schools. You will see students doing amazing work with reading, writing, and numeracy. You will also see students learning skills to be prepared for our world – a world rich in technology, where those who can work together, solve problems, and be lifelong learners will be the ones bound for success.