Publishing School Results and League Tables Harm Education

The following is a summary of a research paper published by Save Our Schools which reviews studies on the impact of publishing school results and league tables on education.

Far from improving education, publication of school results and league tables are likely to significantly harm education. Overseas experience shows that they:

  • Narrow the curriculum;
  • Distort teaching practice;
  • Disadvantage low and high achieving students and unfairly stigmatise low achieving students;
  • Make it more difficult for low performing schools to retain high quality teachers;
  • Discourage co-operation and collaboration between schools and teachers; and
  • Increase social segregation and inequity in education.

There is evidence of these effects already in Australia.

Narrowing of the curriculum
Publication of school results and league tables restrict student learning because they narrow the curriculum and teaching. Students receive a less rounded education.

There are two major aspects of narrowing the curriculum. First, more time and resources are devoted to the tested subjects while other subjects not tested are neglected. Overseas evidence shows that schools direct more resources into the tested subjects of literacy and maths while untested subjects such as science, history, social studies, languages, arts and music, physical education and health receive much less time. Even recess gets cut.

Second, within those subjects that are tested, there is greater focus on the skills that are most conducive to testing by multiple-choice questions and less teaching of more complex thinking and writing skills.

There is already some evidence that publishing NAPLAN school results on My School is narrowing the curriculum in secondary schools in Australia. A survey conducted by the Australian Secondary Principals Association found that 33% of principals said that publication of school results had reduced the breadth of curriculum in their school.

Distorting teaching practices
Teaching practice also tends to change under the pressure of publishing school results and the pressure to improve league table rankings.

There is extensive evidence from overseas that schools and teachers tend to respond to publication of school results and league tables by focusing more on teaching test taking skills and practicing for tests at the expense of deeper learning experiences that develop analytical skills and greater understanding. League tables turn classrooms into test preparation factories. Weeks and months are devoted to test preparation.

There is considerable evidence that publication of NAPLAN school results on the My School website and publication of school league tables is causing schools to spend large amounts of time on test practice in class to the detriment of other areas of the curriculum. A survey conducted by the Australian Secondary Principals Association found that 65% of schools reported that they had increased the time spent in class on preparation for the NAPLAN tests in 2010 and 70% said they had increased the time spent on practising tests. A report published by the Australian Primary Principals Association said large amounts of valuable instructional time was taken up by coaching and practising tests.

Many teachers now refer to NAPLAN as “napalm” because “it kills everything in the classroom”.

There is also evidence that school administrators in some states have pressured principals and schools to devote more time to practising for tests.

This focus on test preparation and raising test scores may undermine efforts to improve the quality of teaching in schools. Some studies show that the idea of a “good teacher” changes in schools under the pressure to lift school results. A “good teacher” becomes someone who increases test scores rather than someone who guides students to deeper and wider learning experiences and encourages self-motivated learning.

Disadvantages low and high achieving students
The pressure to improve school results can also create incentives for schools to ignore students at the lower and upper ends of the student achievement scales. Several English and US studies have found that schools concentrate on improving the results of students who are on the border of accepted benchmarks and neglect the lowest and highest achievers.

Improving the results of students just below benchmarks is seen as the most efficient way to increase a school’s average score or the proportion of students achieving a benchmark. However, while this strategy gives schools a better chance of improving their ranking, it may lead to worse outcomes for low and high performing students.

In addition, publishing outcomes of individual schools and public rankings of schools often unfairly stigmatises and humiliates schools, teachers, students and their families. Students and teachers in particular years may be easily identifiable as the “culprits” when a school gets a low ranking, especially in small schools, of which there are many in rural areas of Australia. Students who are humiliated for their lower learning accomplishments are unlikely to respond positively in their future learning.

Harder for low performing schools to retain quality teachers
League tables of school results serve as a job guide for teachers to apply to highly ranked schools with fewer learning and behavioural problems. This means that low ranked schools often end up with the least qualified, least experienced teachers.

Discourages collaboration and co-operation
Collaboration is generally seen as an important way to spread innovative approaches and good teaching practice both between and within schools. Publication of school results and competition for rankings can reduce collaboration between schools and teachers and slow the dissemination of best practice.

Schools will be reluctant to share successful practices with other schools if it means those schools could leapfrog them on league tables. A lower ranking for a school could result in a decline in enrolments, less financial resources as students leave and greater difficulty in holding and attracting staff.

There is also evidence from overseas that focus on school results undermines co-operation and collaboration between teachers within schools. The pressure to improve school results can generate a climate of fear amongst teachers, undermine trust and result in a breakdown of the professional and social relationships needed to sustain collective professional support for student development.

Increases social segregation and inequity in education
Publication of school results and league tables tends to increase social segregation in and inequity in schooling. This is driven by both schools and parents.

Publishing school results and league tables create greater incentives for some schools to choose their students to maximise their results. There is abundant evidence from overseas of schools of “cream skimming” students most likely to achieve good results – these students are generally from higher income families.

Many parents see education as a “positional good” in that the value of education depends not on the learning acquired but on the relative status of the school attended. Publishing tables of school results aids this search for status and self-segregation. In general, it is well-off families who make greatest use of choice of school and finding the “best” schools inevitably means those that have less low-income and minority students.

Studies show that students from higher income families are far more likely to transfer to wealthier school districts and that white students are more likely to opt out of racially diverse schools and transfer to those with greater percentages of white students.

Increased social segregation in schooling induced by choice and competition between schools and aided by publication of school results and league tables can exacerbate inequity in education in two main ways.

First, it increases disparities between schools in student learning needs and the real resources available to meet those needs. Low SES schools are generally funded on the same per capita basis as other schools, with few allowances for the level of need they have to deal with. They have less real resources because they have higher costs and burdens. They also tend to have less experienced, less qualified teachers.

Second, increasing concentrations of students from low socio-economic status (SES) families in some schools tend to lead to lower overall outcomes. Schools with high concentrations of socio-economically and educationally disadvantaged students often have detrimental effects on student achievement. A student attending such a school is likely to have lower outcomes than a student from a similar background attending a school where the average SES of the student body is high.

This impact also appears to be greater for low SES and immigrant and minority students. There is a “double jeopardy” effect for these students in that they tend to be disadvantaged because of their circumstances at home, but when they are also segregated into low SES and/or predominantly minority schools this disadvantage is compounded.

A further effect of increased segregation in schools by class, religion and race is to make it more difficult for children to develop a real understanding of people of different backgrounds and to break down barriers of social intolerance. Increased social segregation means that more and more students have less experience of mixing with and learning with children from different socio-economic, cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

Trevor Cobbold

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