School rankings paint an incomplete picture of education

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WEB-Test Scores thingy-Vaikunthe Banerjee

By Kai Yang Shiao
Photos by Vaikunthe Banerjee

The Fraser Institute recently published a ranking of every private, public, charter, and separate school in Alberta. This assessment purports to provide a snapshot of the quality of education through eight quantitative measures, relating more or less to the successful completion of secondary education. While many may be tempted to take such statistics at face value, the reality is that the report provides an oversimplified methodology of evaluating school performance by failing to consider various factors affecting student success.

The use of statistics to assess the completion of secondary education and the quality of education provided by educational institutions is a cause for concern. While students belonging to all the school sectors in Alberta must sit for diploma examinations in order to graduate, the reality is that performance is skewed towards private schools.

In this sector, a prominent distinguishing feature involves selective admissions policies, which enable the schools to create student bodies on the basis of academic performance. Considering prospective students’ marks from previous schools as grounds for admission enables their student bodies to have students who perform relatively well.

While contestable, it is logical to expect that students from private schools may outperform their public school counterparts, because of these differences in admissions policies. Not only are admission standards left out of the picture when looking at average diploma examination marks, but the same may also be stated regarding unquantifiable factors like student abilities and family background.

Even though is positive and necessary to have quantitative measures to monitor schools, their use can create an oversimplified relationship between the quality of education and test scores. It is tempting to think of education as any other commodity in which the providers of education — the teachers — are wholly responsible for the well-being of their students as consumers of education.

In other words, teaching staff are viewed as wholly responsible for the academic performance of their students. However, education is unique, because the outcomes do not depend exclusively on teachers. Various major factors include, but are not limited to, work ethic and family background.

Holding everything else constant, students who are committed to their education are more likely to experience greater success. The Alberta Teachers’ Association’s website explains how children in stable family structures are more likely to do well. Further, students with parents who are more involved in monitoring their schoolwork are also more likely to be successful in school.

Such factors have a strong correlation with academic success, regardless of the instructional quality provided by teachers. Because of these factors lurking in the background, there is no way to determine for sure the extent to which student performance is affected by a teacher’s performance. The inability to control and quantify these factors prevents any conclusive interpretations from being made regarding the relationship between teaching ability and student performance.

Because various factors influence student achievement in schools, the issue of how best to improve student success is an ongoing conversation. This requires the active involvement of parents, students, non-profit organizations, and teachers.

More importantly, complicating factors show that our Canadian society should not look for shortcuts, such as the use of quantitative measures, when addressing student achievement, because the entire picture of a student’s educational experience is not being captured