Fraser Institute Alberta high school rankings miss the mark

By Daniel Pagan

A free market think-tank’s high school rankings have drawn fire from instructors, parents and school principals province-wide.

The 10th annual Fraser Institute’s Report Card on Alberta high schools, released last weekend, drew concerns that it focused on academic performance at the expense of classroom participation, teacher assessment and extra-curricular activities.

The rankings were established as a way to evaluate school performance a decade ago. It is based off of provincial diploma exams’ results provided by Alberta Education, with other data such as course enrolment, grade-to-grade transitions and Grade 12 graduation rates considered. This year, the institute collected new information, such as percentage of special needs students, number of English-as-a-second-language students and parental incomes to reflect demographic differences.

The institute’s school performance studies director Peter Cowley argued the report is necessary for parents wanting to compare schools and educators seeking to improve the system.

“All schools have the same main responsibilities, [educating students] and are therefore judged in the report card on the same basis.”

Calgary Board of Education spokesperson Ted Flitton is skeptical of the report, pointing to its reliance on diploma exams.

“How can an organization that has never set foot in these schools then take a two-hour snapshot in time (the tests) and use that to rank a school?” asked Flitton.

He pointed out the report failed to acknowledge the differences between private and public schools, such as programs for students with special needs.

“There are private schools that actively select students who enter their doors via tuition fees, entrance requirements, etc.,” said Flitton. “If a student has special needs, many of these schools would simply reject them. We take everyone who comes to us and we do a great job of educating them.”

Cowley dismissed concerns, stressing the institute had encouraged teachers and administrators to suggest ways to improve the card, but there has been little interest.

“It seems that they would much rather have a system in which schools could not be compared on any bases, by anybody,” said Cowley.

“Everyone would have an equal chance of sending their children to a bad school. I don’t think that’s what Albertans want.”

Cowley’s comments have attracted ire from the Albertan Teachers’ Association communications co-ordinator Dennis Theobald, who noted the Department of Education has previously denounced the use of provincial test results for ranking schools as inappropriate.

“The Fraser Institute falsely assumes that opposition to its ranking scheme simply reflects a refusal by educators to be held accountable for their work,” he said. “In fact, teachers welcome meaningful and fair accountability and the ATA is working with authorities in the field to develop approaches to accountability that better reflect the inherent complexity of education in the 21st century.”

Perhaps a surprising person to echo concerns about the report is West Island College grand headmaster Jack Grant. The private school tied for the top high school in this year’s report.

“It only looks at one area, academic preparation, and even here it significantly limits its investigation . . . yet it purports to evaluate and rank all Albertan high schools,” said Grant.

“The report card does not address the fine arts, the social sciences, second languages, physical education or courses in the technologies.”

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