Reporting School Results and League Tables

The following is a speech to the Branch Council of the ACT Branch of the Australian Education Union by Trevor Cobbold, National Convenor of Save Our Schools, on 15 April. It shows how Federal and State/Territory have duped the Australian public about school league tables, summarises the case against reporting school results and league tables and calls for them to be resisted by parents and teachers.

The Government’s Plans

The Federal Government is introducing three separate forms of school results to be published by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) later this year.

First, there will be individual school reports which will include NAPLAN results and Year 12 results for secondary schools, together with a range of other information about schools.

Second, ACARA will publish local area school comparisons which will compare the results of schools within yet to be defined local areas. The third form of school performance comparison is so-called like school comparisons which are intended to allow comparisons of schools in similar socio-economic circumstances.

In addition to these results, some state and territory governments may publish school results for their own jurisdiction on a centralized website as is now done by the Queensland, Tasmanian and Western Australian Governments. It is not clear what the ACT intends to do.

Government Sophistry on League Tables

The Prime Minister, the Federal Minister for Education and State and Territory education ministers all claim that they are opposed to “simplistic” league tables. Yet, this is exactly what we are getting from them. Their claimed opposition to league tables is pure sophistry.

The recent publication of school results in Queensland is instructive.

The school results that appeared in the Courier-Mail at the beginning of this month were initially published by the Queensland Government in a table on the Queensland Studies Authority website. The Courier-Mail simply re-published them in a special lift-out with schools listed in alphabetical order. It also published a list of five primary and five high schools with the highest average results. The Gold Coast Bulletin published its own ranking of the top schools on the Gold Coast.

Now the Queensland Government claims that it is opposed to “simplistic” league tables. However, the Queensland Education Minister Geoff Wilson said the publication of school results reflected the Government’s commitment to openness and transparency. Julia Gillard strongly backed the Queensland Government’s action saying it was “time we stopped averting our eyes from poor performance” in the classroom [The Australian, 10 August 2009]. The clear implication is that she is in favour of publishing lists of school results. Yet, she also claims to be opposed to “simplistic” and “dumb” league tables.

A similar thing happened in Tasmania earlier this year. The Tasmanian Government published the results for individual schools on separate school websites. The Hobart Mercury then used the data to rank the average results of Tasmanian high schools from the highest to the lowest. 

Yet, the Tasmanian Premier and Minister for Education, David Bartlett, claimed that publishing the results was “not about ranking schools or creating league tables”. Julia Gillard “applauded” the Tasmanian Government for its action, praising it as “brave” [The Australian, 1 November 2008].

No government leader has condemned either the Courier-Mail or the Mercury for publishing tables of school results or for ranking schools on their average results. The Prime Minister has not condemned them despite his claim of being opposed to “arbitrary” league tables, Julia Gillard has not condemned them despite claiming to be opposed to “simplistic” and “dumb” league tables, Anna Bligh has not condemned them, Geoff Wilson has not condemned them and David Bartlett has not condemned them. What hypocrites!

None of these leaders are prepared to ban the publication of league tables. The most any of them are prepared to go is David Bartlett who said that he will “encourage those in the media who have control of these things not to publish simplistic league tables” [The Mercury, 7 August]. He said he would say this to any journalist who wants to hear it and to any editor as well. The editor and journalists of the Mercury must still be quaking in their boots.

So this is where we are. Governments are to publish school results while washing their hands of all responsibility when the media publishes them and creates rankings of schools. Ministers’ claims of being opposed to league tables are disingenuous, hypocritical and self-serving. Their assurances are designed to deceive and to mislead.

The fact is that, by publishing school results, governments are inviting the media to rank schools. Indeed, governments are inviting anyone who looks at these results to rank schools. They serve no other purpose but to enable people to compare results and sort them into some kind of ordering or ranking. Governments want parents to compare school results as part of the process of choosing a school and to “drive school improvement” as Julia Gillard told the Brookings Institution in June.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of local area comparisons of school results. Local area school comparisons are intended to allow people to compare and rank schools. The National Education Agreement signed by all Australian governments makes this perfectly clear. Paragraph 32 of the Agreement states:

The publication of this information [school results] will allow….comparison of a school with other schools in their local community.  

The Federal Minister for Education has stated on several occasions that parents will be able to compare results for schools in their local area, most recently on Radio 2GB in Sydney. She said:

You’ll then be able to compare that school to other schools in your local community which is important if you move there with a few kids you want to see how all the schools go to make a choice about where your child should go. [5 August]

Local area comparisons are in fact “mini-league tables”. While they may not formally rank schools, it will be a simple matter for anyone to cast their eyes down the table of results and compare and rank schools on their performance – this is their purpose. To deny that these comparisons are “simplistic” and “arbitrary” league tables is playing with semantics. In publishing these tables, the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister have broken the assurances they have been giving the public about league tables for the past two years.

In some ways, this broken assurance is more calamitous than the ‘wink and nod’ they have given the media to publish full league tables. As the chief executive of the Australian Council for Educational Research, Geoff Masters, has said, it is comparisons of schools in the same geographical area that will be used most by parents [Sydney Morning Herald, 7 August]. It is these local area school comparisons that will mainly drive any changes in the pattern of school choice arising from the introduction of reporting school results.

What’s Wrong with Reporting School Results?

Reporting school results leads to comparisons and rankings of schools, whether or not the media publish formal league tables. There are at least three major arguments against publishing school results:

  • They are an unreliable indicator of the quality of school programs and teaching;
  • They will harm education; and
  • They lead to social segregation in schools.

League tables just compound these problems.

Unreliable indicator of school quality

Comparisons of school results are an unreliable indicator of differences in school quality because:

  • They do not take account of outside influences on student achievement;
  • They are often subject to manipulation and rorting; and
  • They generally do not take account of measurement error in test results.

School comparisons and league tables mislead about school quality because they reflect factors outside the control of schools and teachers. For example, school results are significantly determined by the socio-economic background of school communities. League table rankings are often more a measure of the family background of a school’s students than the quality of its teaching.

Also, if a higher proportion of families engage private tutoring a school will receive a boost to its measured performance and league table ranking even though there was no change in teaching effectiveness.

School results and league table rankings are also subject to manipulation. Overseas experience shows that many schools rort their results by poaching high achieving students from other schools, denying entry to, or expelling, low achieving students, suspending low achieving students on test days, increasing use of special dispensations for tests and encouraging students to take courses whose results are not used to compare schools. Already, there are numerous examples of such practices in Australia.

Last year, the Sydney Morning Herald exposed excessive use of dispensations for the HSC exam by some NSW elite private schools. These special dispensations include having extra time for tests, alternative assessments and sitting tests at different times from other students.  

Up to 30% of students at some private schools were given special provisions in the 2008 HSC, compared with an average 7% of government high school students. Masada College claimed special dispensations for 30% of its students and Scot’s College claimed them for 25% of its students. These are amongst the wealthiest, highest socio-economic status schools in Australia.

The Herald also reported that a Sydney private school was forcing students to complete their HSC at TAFE if it appears they will not score high marks. Parents said their children had not been allowed to sit their exams at the school. The school had rapidly improved its ranking in the Herald’s HSC results league table in recent years.

Last month, the West Australian reported that schools are pushing many Year 12 students to choose easier subjects so schools can lift their ranking on league tables. If struggling students are channelled into courses with no exams, their scores will not be counted in a school’s overall tertiary entrance results which are used to measure school performance.

The absurd lengths to which school systems can go to fudge their results reached new heights in Texas last month. The Texas Education Authority introduced a new scheme for reporting school results which allows schools to report students as passing tests even when they fail. Schools will be able to do so if a complex formula predicts that students who fail will pass in a future year. It will allow hundreds of schools to boost their performance.

League tables also mislead when measurement and sampling errors on school results are not reported. The margin of error can be exceptionally large in measuring improvement which means that the results of the large majority of schools are indistinguishable from each other. Many technical studies of school results and school league tables have demonstrated that chance differences account for a significant proportion of the differences in school test scores. Some 50 – 80% of school results may be statistically indistinguishable. Reported differences between school results may reflect chance differences rather than real differences.

It is instructive that neither the Queensland nor the Tasmanian Governments reported measurement errors when they published their school results. The Courier-Mail and the Mercury made no mention of the possibility errors in the results.

School comparisons harm education

School comparisons and league tables harm education in several ways.

First, they narrow the curriculum and teaching with the result that students receive a less rounded education. Overseas evidence shows that schools direct more time 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. There is also less teaching of more complex thinking and writing skills.

A major review of the English primary school curriculum published earlier this year by Cambridge University criticised the dominance of a rigid testing regime and its distorting effect on the curriculum. It said that children were receiving an education that was “fundamentally deficient”. It was neither broad nor balanced, and it valued memorization and recall over understanding and inquiry.

League tables turn classrooms into test preparation factories. Weeks and months are devoted to test preparation instead of deep learning. This is happening already in Australia.

Last April, the head of the Victorian Department of Education, Peter Dawkins, sent a memo to all principals suggesting more time be spent on preparing students for the National Assessment Programme for Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) tests so as to improve Victoria’s results.

The Age has reported that teachers are being pressured to put more time into test practice [13 April 2009]. The Courier-Mail in Brisbane reported in March that education officials were putting tremendous pressure on teachers to lift results by practising for tests. The West Australian reported that up to a quarter of school time was being spent on preparing for the tests [14 April 2009].

School comparisons harm education in many other ways. Schools often devote more time to students who are on the cusp of proficiency benchmarks at the expense of low achieving students because this is the easiest way to improve a school’s results. Competition for rankings discourages collaboration and co-operation between schools. Schools will be reluctant to share successful practices with other schools if it means those schools could leapfrog them in ranking. Also, low ranked schools find it more difficult to retain high quality teachers.

Increase social segregation

Reporting school results and publishing league tables tends to increase social segregation in schools by increasing choice and competition between schools. Many schools actively choose their enrolments by “cream skimming” or “cherry picking” students most likely to achieve good results – these students are generally from white, well-off families. There is evidence of increasing social segregation between schools in England as a consequence of greater competition between schools induced by league tables. A new study of education markets in Detroit, New Orleans and Washington DC has found that competition between schools for enrolments tend to create hierarchies of schools in education markets serving families of different social backgrounds.

Where to Now?

High stakes are involved with the introduction of school performance comparisons and league tables in Australia. A critical blow is being struck against public education which must be resisted. Professor Brian Caldwell, not a noted radical, has urged “agitation on an epic scale” against league tables, calling on teachers and parents to boycott the national tests. It may come to this. But, if it does, there needs to be a long preparation to make it successful.

Action could include:

  1. Increase parent and public awareness of the harm done by reporting school results through forums, workshops, leaflets, etc;
  2. A campaign of lobbying and letter writing to politicians;
  3. Build alliances between stakeholder organisations at the national, state/territory, regional and school levels to oppose publishing school comparisons;
  4. Organise for a parent and teacher boycott of NAPLAN tests.

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