In the Fraser Institute’s recent release of the 2019 school rankings, Mount Elizabeth Middle/Secondary School (MEMSS) came in 248th out of the 252 secondary schools ranked in B.C.
The schools are scored out of 10 and are marked on factors such as average exam marks, percentage of exams failed, math and English, gender gaps, and graduation rates.
Usually at an average of around 5 out of 10, MEMSS received a score of 1.7 out of 10 for their 2019 ranking.
Peter Cowley, a Senior Fellow and former Director of School Performance Studies at the Fraser Institute, said the goal with the annual ‘school report cards’ is to help schools locate areas where they can work to improve, not to try to have them all scrambling to be number one on the list.
“Improvement is really what we should be asking of every school. You can’t say to every school, ‘Be right at the top of the list.’ It’s not going to happen,” Cowley said. “But any school has the capacity to improve in any one of these indicators, as well as overall rating out of 10.”
Cowley said the idea for the report card ranking system came about in 1996, when he and several other parents realized they wanted more information about how their children’s school was doing in various areas of learning and teaching.
Then, at one parents’ meeting, a teacher gave them a paper that showed the names of public and secondary schools in the province, as well as the 21 Grade-12 final exam courses and the average marks for each school. Upon seeing this information, Cowley decided he wanted to do a ranking of all the secondary schools in the province with the data sets that are publicly available from the Ministry of Education.
Cowley got together with the Fraser Institute and an economics professor at Simon Fraser University in 1997, and came out with their first official report card — that of the B.C. secondary schools — in 1998.
In the following few years, secondary and elementary schools in Alberta and Ontario, and secondary schools in Quebec, were also brought into the rankings.
Cowley said that, over the years, there’s been one main complaint from the public and the schools about the report cards.
“One criticism, and only one, that I’ve gotten over the 20 years I’ve been involved in this, is that the results are too narrow in their focus. That there’s lots more to a well-functioning school than just high-up exam marks or graduation rate, that it’s above average, et cetera. And in that, I entirely agree,” Cowley said.
Janet Meyer, Superintendent of Schools for Coast Mountains School District 82 (CMSD82), which includes MEMSS, said that this narrowness in factors is the reason why she doesn’t pay much attention to the schools’ rankings.
“I do not put any stock whatsoever into our school district’s performance as it relates to the way that we are reflected in the Fraser Institute school rankings,” Meyer said. “Those factors are very focused around provincial assessment and we have a broad range of assessment tools that we use in addition to those.”
Meyer said that the results that feed into the Fraser Institute’s ranking results are based on provincial level assessments only, and don’t take into consideration other aspects, such as the population that public schools serve.
“We take all students from anywhere they’re at, and we don’t screen them, in terms of a process. And as a result we get our enrolment from across the population and not narrowed down to one, stereotypical group, if you will,” Meyer said. “We’re dealing with students in some cases — not always — with more challenges as it relates to behaviour, attendance, parental support if you will, all of those aspects, and none of that is taken into consideration.”
Cowley said the challenge to widening the factors analyzed is that many of the education stakeholder groups that have the other types of information have refused to provide it for the institute’s report cards, either because they don’t want the public seeing it or because they haven’t been keeping track of it.
“In some cases, [groups] have specifically ensured that we can’t get more data,” Cowley said. “And mostly because there are no more data.”
Cowley said that, for a couple of years, the report cards had a measure of the percentage of the population in each grade who were signed up for a school sport. They had 17 different sports and all the data they needed, when all of a sudden the Board of Directors at the BC School Sports organization rescinded it. And because it wasn’t public data, Cowley said he couldn’t get access to it.
“It’s kind of ironic that the criticism that I agree with, i.e. the report card is too narrow in focus, is specifically because organizations like the teachers’ union, the principals’ association, the Ministry of Education, they’re all together on not being too interested in providing the public with more information about this extraordinarily important and expensive thing we call the education of our children.”
Cowley said he hopes schools look to this report as an opportunity, not a form of “shaming and blaming,” because his goal with the rankings is to show key areas where schools can improve and compete against themselves, not against other schools.
“No educator, and certainly not me, would ever say that the reason for looking at this and making changes is to get a better ranking,” Cowley said. “Quite the opposite. The reason for taking these indicators into consideration is asking, ‘How is it that we think we might be able to improve the percentage of exams failed?’ for instance.”
In MEMSS’ case this past year, the largest changes in their marks came in the ‘delayed advancement rate’ and ‘English gender gap’ categories. The former is the estimated percentage of the school’s Grade 10 students who are not likely to complete Grade 12 within the normal three-year period, and is calculated by looking at average enrolment and dropout rates for the school from Grades 8 to 12.
The latter is the the difference in points, if any, between boys’ and girls’ average exam marks in English. In 2019, the English gender gap was 10.5 points, whereas 5.6 points had been the highest previously since 2015. The delayed advancement rate was 31.8 per cent, which was almost double the previous highest percentage of 16.7 per cent in 2015.
“It may be that there is some kind of random issue that affected those two indicators in this school in this one year,” Cowley said. “There could be all sorts of different things that came to light in 2019 that were not an issue from 2015 to 2018 that produced that result.”
That’s why they provide the five years of data, Cowley said, to show parents and others that there will be random fluctuations from year to year, and people need to focus on the school’s ranking over time.
Cowley said they use the term “statistically significant” to say whether a piece of data is a real change or just a random year-to-year fluctuation.
“Just looking at the raw data here [for MEMSS], it would pretty much lead me to believe that there is no statistically significant decline in the results,” Cowley said. “It’s too early to say that in the English gender gap [and delayed advancement rate] that something really bad that is happening that needs to be addressed.”
Meyer said that for MEMSS, and all the schools in CMSD82, she doesn’t feel that the Fraser Institute report cards would be something she looked to for ways to improve the schools and what happens within them.
“One of the goal areas for Mount Elizabeth is developing a sense of belonging in their school,” Meyer said. “And that’s a perfect example of how something that may be qualitative in nature as opposed to quantitative, but will have a huge impact on student achievement and is something that the Fraser Institute doesn’t take into consideration.”
Meyer said that a sense of belonging for individual students and a deep integration of Indigenous world views in their work are two items that are part of MEMSS’ school plan for the year, because they both work to foster a sense of community within the school which, in turn, helps students engage more and do better in school.
Cowley said that, ultimately, he just wants parents to be able to ask their children’s school more informed questions, and to help the educators improve their teaching and the students’ learning year after year.
“Every year you’ve done something that makes the current class of kids better equipped, better able to move forward successfully than the kids in the previous years,” Cowley said. “If that happened in every school, every year, the sky’s the limit.”
And while Meyer agrees with improvement, she said she feels MEMSS is doing a great job in fostering relationships with students to contribute to their learning and development, and that’s what really matters.
“That’s something that while, notwithstanding the Fraser Institute and it’s all based on numbers and I recognize that, the staff at Mount Elizabeth Middle Secondary School are committed to building strong relationships by staying connected to learners, by listening to them, and by engaging them in their learning,” Meyer said. “That’s not measured by the Fraser Institute.”