Practical Lessons in League Tables

Primary school league tables were published in England this week. They provide practical lessons about the implications of the Rudd Government’s decision to publish league tables in Australia.

The results for all primary schools for Key Stage 2 exams (end of Year 6) were published by the Department of Children, Schools and Families on its website

The results are reported in tables for each of 150 Local Authority areas and by region. Schools are listed in alphabetic order.

The tables give information on the achievements of pupils in local primary schools, how they compare with other schools in the Local Authority area, and in England as a whole.

They show percentages of pupils achieving Level 4 or above and Level 5 in each subject as well as the combined percentage at Level 4 or above in English and mathematics. Level 4 is the level expected of most 11 year olds. Level 5 means pupils are achieving beyond the expected level. They also report a combined average point score and progress achieved since Year 2.

The first lesson is that publishing tables of school results means league tables.

The UK Government calls the tables “Achievement and Attainment Tables”. However, the media calls them league tables, even though schools are listed in alphabetical order.

The media use the official tables to construct tables of results that rank schools by performance. For example, the BBC publishes tables of the top 201 schools and the worst 201 schools across England ranked according to their combined aggregate score for English, mathematics and science (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/education/7974668.stm ). It also provides a table ranking the top 329 schools according to the progress made since Year 2.

The London Times publishes a table of the top 50 ranking primary schools in England

The Daily Telegraph ranked schools in tables for each Local Authority area.

The second lesson is that the best and worst schools get highlighted by the press. For example, the Times did a profile on the highest performing primary school while the BBC reported on the worst performing school.

The BBC went so far as to construct a table of the 201 worst performing schools in England, ranked according to their aggregate scores. The Independent highlighted both the best and the worst performing school. The schools are ranked and highlighted without regard to the social background of students, which has a major influence on student achievement.

The third lesson is that often the data is inadequate and contains mistakes. This means that schools are being ranked according to incomplete and inaccurate data so that parents and the public can be misled about differences in school performance.

The Guardian reported that the principal of one high performing school said mistakes in the figures meant his school’s results were over-inflated and wrongly placed him top of the table. “Parents can’t trust this data,” he warned.

“The results are wrong, and I’ve been trying to get them changed since July. No one will listen. They are not accurate and they should not be published. I would hate anybody to be blowing our trumpet saying we are highest when it’s a nonsense.”

It was also reported that dozens of schools – nearly three times as many as in 2007 – were excluded from the tables because more than 50% of their results are still “missing”. Some 1,394 test papers in 164 schools are still missing, meaning all those schools are ranked on incomplete data. Earlier this year the UK Qualifications and Curriculum Authority estimated that in 2007 nearly a fifth of students were awarded the wrong grade in English.

The Guardian last week reported research by Professor Dylan Williams at the Institute of Education which shows that there is no general consistency in these exam results in any year; a quarter of children are awarded the wrong level on any given day, because minor variations in performance push them above or below grade boundaries.

In addition, the Government published tables do not include estimates of the statistical errors that are routinely associated with tests. Research shows that non-reporting of statistical error misleads parents and the public about school performance and rankings of schools.

Another lesson is that league tables distort teaching priorities.

The latest primary school test results in England show a steep decline in the number of children attaining Level 5 scores, the maximum possible. The Guardian and the Times said this suggests that high achieving students are being neglected as teachers concentrate on raising the attainment of borderline pupils performing at just below national standards.

Research shows that as schools focus on obtaining a good ranking on league tables they concentrate on improving the results of students just below benchmark standards and neglect very low and high performing students.

A major review of the primary school curriculum published in February by a team from Cambridge University concluded that a generation of children had had their lives impoverished by the dominance of a rigid testing regime and had received an education that was “fundamentally deficient”. It was neither broad nor balanced, and it valued memorization and recall over understanding and inquiry.

It said that the focus on national tests in literacy and numeracy has narrowed the scope of what is taught in schools. It says the arts, history and science have been the main casualties, being squeezed out by the obsession with literacy and numeracy and the “elephant in the curriculum” of high-stakes testing.

These are all lessons for Australia in the adoption of centralized reporting of school results. It inevitably means league tables.

As in England, the Australian tables will be reported by geographical area to allow comparisons of schools in the same area. However, the fact that school results are published for each region means that they can be compared with any other school in any other region.

Australia will also publish tables of so-called ‘like-schools’. These are another form of league table. It means that a school’s results in one table of like-schools can be compared with that of other schools in other tables.

As in England, the media will be free to turn these tables into tables of the top performing and worst performing schools in Australia. We can now expect a regular media frenzy to find the best and worst schools in Australia.

As in England, we can expect a narrowing of the curriculum and a diminished education for children as schools are forced to focus on tested subjects and improve their rank on league tables.

Trevor Cobbold

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