Labor Backs School League Tables

Whatever Government is in power next year, we can expect to be treated to an annual public hunt for the worst schools in Australia.

The Federal ALP has joined forces with the Howard Government’s plan for a ‘crime and punishment’ approach to school improvement. The Shadow Minister for Education, Stephen Smith, says that a Federal Labor Government will ensure that state governments publish school literacy and numeracy results.

Reporting of school results inevitably leads to the publication of school league tables as it has in England and the US. Poor performing schools will be subject to a public ‘tar and feathering’ to make an example of them in the hope it will force them to do better.

This is a short step from taking away funding or closing schools if they don’t improve as now happens in England and many states in the US. Once it was found that reporting school results was not sufficient to improve results, governments resorted to punishing schools and students for not improving performance.

Public shaming, humiliation and punishment for poor performance have never worked as a teaching strategy in schools. They offer even less as public policy.

Overseas research shows that reporting school results has minimal impact on student achievement. The main effect is that schools adopt various strategies to artificially boost their performance.

The easiest way to do this is to replace low achieving students with those who generate better test results. Schools do this by ‘creaming off’ high achieving students from other schools and getting rid of their low achieving students. They also use covert selection methods to avoid enrolling low achieving and intellectually impaired students.

Outright cheating is another way. In the last year alone, cheating incidents have occurred in a number of school districts in Florida, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Texas and Virginia. They involve teachers helping students answer test questions, changing answers and grades and giving bogus grades to absent students.

One spectacular case involved a school district superintendent instructing a school principal on how to cheat. Others involved principals directing teachers to increase the test scores of students.

Another method of inflating school results is ‘gaming the system’. This includes suspending low achievers on test day, encouraging them to be absent on test day, increasing exemptions from tests and retaining students at a non-tested Year level. For example, several studies found that exemption rates increased in the US with the introduction of reporting school results, especially in high poverty schools.

The overseas experience of league table rankings is that they also bring substantial negative consequences for school systems, schools and many students.

A major effect is to increase disparities between schools and entrench social segregation between schools. As the more successful schools siphon off better students, better teachers and associated funding from other schools, the unpopular schools become the dumping ground for disadvantaged pupils and demoralised teachers. It often involves racial segregation as well.

Once a school develops a ‘bad’ reputation because of a low ranking it finds it increasingly difficult to attract the staff needed to improve results as good teachers move to where life seems easier. Teachers who are demoralised have low expectations of students with poor results.

The result is a two-tier school system – one group of schools for the well-off and the best teachers and another for the least well-off and the least qualified and experienced teachers.

League tables also distort curriculum and teaching. The allocation of resources within schools becomes biased towards the Year levels and curriculum areas that are subject to testing. For example, the arts and cultural activities are often down-graded. Student support and the social objectives of schooling also receive lower priority.

Teaching practice changes under the pressure of improving league table rankings. Teachers tend to adopt more lecturing and rote learning approaches and neglect learning experiences that develop deeper understanding and critical thinking.

Test preparation becomes a high priority, even often reducing student free time. For example, a growing concern in the US is the number of schools that have reduced or eliminated recesses in order to devote more time to test preparation.

League tables create incentives for schools to ignore the low-achieving students. Several English and US studies have found that schools concentrate on students who are on the border of accepted benchmarks and neglect the lowest achievers. Focusing on borderline students gives schools a better chance to improve their ranking.

Competition between schools for public rankings reduces collaboration and sharing of best practice between schools. Schools are reluctant to share their successful practices with other schools if it means those schools could jump above them in league table rankings.

Competition for league ranking also diverts energy and resources to marketing school image. Marketing image is used to attract students who will enhance a school’s ranking. School budgets and the time of school leaders are increasingly devoted to glossy brochures and prospectuses, slick promotional events and advertising. This is an easier way to improve a school’s ranking than effective school improvement which takes time and effort.

A key argument of advocates of league tables is that they inform parent choice of schools. However, league table rankings are misleading advertising because they are an inaccurate and misleading measure of school quality.

Average school results are influenced by many factors other than the quality of school programs and teaching. They include the extent of parent involvement in learning at home, the extent to which students are engaged in after hours tutoring, the socio-economic and cultural background of the community and student absenteeism.

League tables don’t distinguish between the ‘value added’ by the school and the influence of these other factors. For example, rankings may say more about the social composition of school enrolments than about the quality of teaching.

School results and league table rankings may also be distorted by the results of a few students in small schools and by transfers of students between schools. Studies show that small schools are much more likely to report large changes in average results from one year to the next, both positive and negative.

Stephen Smith argues that reporting of school results would assist in identifying struggling schools and those in need of intervention programs. However, this only reflects the ignorance of the Shadow Minister. This information is already available to Departments of Education and schools. Public reporting of school results is not needed to identify which schools are in need of more support and assistance in improving student outcomes.

There is an alternative to league tables to ensure public accountability for improving school performance. It involves reporting of aggregated school results in a way that does not identify individual schools but still ensures public accountability.

This can be done by reporting the number of schools in each state/territory whose average result falls within different score ranges so that the extent of improvement from year to year can be assessed. It could also include reporting the proportion of all students, and those from targeted equity groups, whose results fall within different score ranges so as to monitor progress in achieving greater equity in school outcomes.

Such reporting would ensure that Governments are held to account for making genuine improvements in low achieving schools and improving equity in student outcomes.

Federal Labor’s support for league tables means that it has cast its lot with the market approach to education delivery being implemented by the Howard Government. School league tables are fundamental to extending markets in education, which overseas research shows exacerbate social segregation and inequity in education.

The bi-partisan support for league tables also represents a break with nationally agreed goals of education to increase social equity in education in Australia. It will reinforce patterns of privilege and disadvantage in Australian schooling.

Trevor Cobbold

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