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District schools at both ends of controversial rankings

The Okanagan Skaha School District has some of the highest and lowest ranked schools in the province, at least according to the Fraser Institute’s 2011 Report Card on Elementary Schools.

Holy Cross Elementary, an independent Catholic school, was ranked at 18 out of the 875 schools included in the controversial report, while West Bench Elementary showed up at 857. Trout Creek Elementary in Summerland was Okanagan Skaha’s highest ranked public school, at 237.

But overall, the majority of the schools in the district show little improvement in their rankings, which are based on the results of provincial Foundation Skills Assessment test conducted last February, with several showing a decline, like Carmi Elementary.

Peter Cowley, Fraser Institute director of school performance studies, said the overall performance of area schools — according to their measures — is a cause for concern, especially at Carmi Elementary, which he said has shown a “statistically significant” decline over the last five years of data.

“There seems to be a malaise,” he said, adding that while there may not be a problem, he recommends erring on the side of caution and reviewing school and district improvement plans. “I’d rather make a mistake by overstating the problem.”

Having just completed her own review of the status of education in the district, superintendent Wendy Hyer disagrees, saying that the schools are doing well and are constantly working to improve, using a variety of assessments to determine the educational needs of the students, rather than just the broadly based FSA tests.

Like others, she does not approve of the way the private think-tank uses the data from the annual assessments, which are intended to provide a broad “snapshot” of education in the province overall, not rank individual schools or students.

“I am not a fan of the Fraser Institute Report Card,” said Hyer, noting that it has a very narrow focus of what makes a good school. “There is more to what makes a good school.”

Cowley said it’s a blend of things that lead to independent schools consistently being ranked higher than public schools in the report, starting with the fact families choose the school, indicating a level of involvement, both on the parent and school sides. Independent schools like Holy Cross have the capacity to define the parent’s role and responsibility for their child’s education, while parents are able to easily choose another if the school doesn’t live up to its promise.

“They are more attuned to the needs of families because families can leave at will,” said Cowley. “There are market forces that act more on privates schools than public.”

Lisa Edwards, who took over as principal of West Bench Elementary last September, said the school’s results — based on the February 2010 FSA — surprised her.

“It doesn’t make sense when we look at that group and their overall performance,” said Edwards, adding that the rankings have very little effect on how administrators and teachers or students feel about their performance or their school.

After 18 years in the education system, she said she has never heard students refer to the report or had comments from parents, whether the school was ranked highly or not.

Some schools, Hyer said, face bigger challenges than others with high percentages of English as a second language (ESL), special needs or other students needing individualized education plans — factors that might not be present at independent schools like Holy Cross.

That can easily sway the results on the FSA, as can the small size of the sample populations (Grade 4) being measured at the schools, which range from populations of 15 to 74 in Okanagan Skaha. Hyer said for the FSA to be an effective measurement, it needs a large sample, looking at overall performance at the district or provincial level.

“Is it valid to say 21 students out of the entire student population of the school took the tests over the course of five days, and say that represents the performance of the entire school?” asked Kevin Epp, president of the Okanagan Skaha Teachers Union. “You could change that by two students and, depending on how they did, the results might be vastly different.”

The B.C. Teachers’ Federation has long opposed the use the Fraser Institute’s use of the provincial FSA, calling for the assessment to be changed so it can not be used in this way.

“Teachers are not against tests, not against good quality tests,” said Epp.

What they are against, he continued, is the Ministry of Education releasing the results of the FSAs to the Fraser Institute.

“Then the Fraser Institute cooks it to show a picture they want to show,” said Epp. “It’s nothing more that a marketing campaign.”

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