Friday, May 25, 2007

Fraser Institute findings ought to worry us
May 25, 2007

The Fraser Institute’s annual ranking of B.C. schools is one of those things that sparks controversy every time among teachers, principals and parents. A bad ranking really spoils people’s day.
Critics of the annual ritual say the good of a school simply isn’t evident solely on the basis of how its students perform on assessment tests. There’s much more to doing a good job than test scores can ever measure, they argue.
Those are valid points. Schools are complex places, and tests are simplistic tools.
But with all due respect to the many hard-working school teachers out there, the institute’s school-by-school analysis is still worth talking about. Uncomfortable as it may be, we have much to discuss in terms of the significant gaps the institute identifies between B.C.’s schools.
In its most recent report, the institute rated the province’s elementary schools. The ratings are primarily about how well a school’s young students did when tested in Grade 4 and again in Grade 7 on their reading and numeracy skills.
Once upon a time, the institute’s report didn’t tell you much more than the test scores. But the information now being gathered includes more detail, like the percentage of a school’s students who are categorized as special needs, or are learning English as a second language.
Not surprisingly, the Fraser Institute report reveals that higher numbers of students with those additional challenges generally correlates with a school’s poorer academic performance.
But not always, which is why the school-by-school analysis ought to be mandatory reading for every parent in the province.
What the figures show is that throughout the province, things are not going well in some of our schools.
Of the 154 Vancouver Island schools surveyed, very nearly half now have 20 per cent or more of their students performing below Ministry of Education expectations. At one Nanaimo school, the majority of students scored below expectations.
That ought to worry us.
Schools can be measured any number of ways, and tests aren’t even necessarily the best way. But the percentage of students performing below expectations in provincial tests is still a significant indicator of overall school performance.
If scores are low in B.C. because there are an abundance of young students needing special-needs support or help learning English as a second language (ESL), then more of that kind of support will be needed to fix the problem.
But those challenges alone don’t explain everything about why some Island schools do poorly.
At Nanaimo’s North Oyster school, for instance, some of the poor test performance can likely be attributed to having 23.6 per cent ESL students, let alone another 8.3 per cent with special needs. It’s the obvious explanation for why more than half of the North Oyster students are scoring below provincial expectations.
Except that at Torquay Elementary here in Victoria, the percentage of ESL students is 30 per cent, and 8.7 per cent of the students have special needs. Yet only three per cent of their students scored below expectations.
Why such a gap? I hope we would want to know. We need to know, if only for the sake of every little kid who’s trusting us to provide a useful education.
At 14 Island elementaries, at least 30 per cent of the students are performing below expectations. The problem seems particularly alarming in the Nanaimo school district, which has eight of those 14 schools.
The rates of ESL and special-needs students fluctuate dramatically at those poorly performing schools. The level of challenge is definitely a factor in overall school performance, but clearly not the only one.
In the Comox Valley, Cumberland Elementary has just 3.1 per cent ESL students, and 7.9 per cent special needs. Over at Glacier View Elementary, there are twice as many ESL students, and almost twice as many special-needs students.
But when it comes to student performance, Glacier View scores notably higher. Twenty per cent of its students scored below provincial expectations, compared to almost 33 per cent at the Cumberland school.
That’s not to suggest we leap to the conclusion that the problem is about teaching quality. Still, something’s obviously up. Whatever the reasons behind our schools’ failings, we need to take them very seriously. We need to know why they’re happening.
Statistics have to be handled with care, of course. It just might turn out that the real problem is the Grades 4 and 7 assessments themselves, or that the student populations being looked at for the study are too small to be translated into meaningful percentages.
But we owe it to B.C.’s kids to figure that out. Maintaining an effective public system means addressing the inexplicable differences in performance at our schools before the gaps grow any larger.
Visit www.fraserinstitute.ca/reportcards/index.asp?snav=rc for school-by-school results. And if it looks like your child’s school is struggling to meet standards, ask why.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very interesting article that does not blame on anyone's feet. Thanks for the great read(and all the other great reads you provide)