The Whackiness of School League Tables

Once again, The Canberra Times has run the legal gauntlet by publishing the crudest of school league tables. The Times is the proverbial “last man standing” now that the nation’s other newspapers have given up on this practice.

A quick analysis of the content of the league tables reveals how unreliable and meaningless the information is – at least when it comes to drawing any conclusions about school or teacher quality.

Across year groups, across the disciplines, and across the independent, Catholic and government sectors, schools are jumping around all over the place!

In Year 3 writing, one school went from 1st last year to 66th this year, whilst in Year 3 grammar another school went from 81st to 4th!

These are not aberrations, as similarly spectacular rises and falls appear throughout the tables.

In Year 5 writing one school jumped from 67th to 1st, while another went from 6th to 56th!

One high school jumped from 29th to 2nd in Year 7 Grammar, but the same school fell from 6th to 29th in Year 9 spelling!

The AEU does not deny that some schools have clearly benefitted from investment through the National Partnerships – we know that through talking to our professionals in schools and through measurements not limited to NAPLAN. And the Union does not dispute that great work is being done across the Territory to enhance students’ literacy and numeracy skills. In fact, the one thing we can rely on in all of this is the continuing dedication of our people in schools to equipping our students with the full range of skills.

However, one simple fact cannot be ignored: For every “winner” on a league table, there is a “loser”. If one goes up, one must come down.

When a school makes a spectacular leap, have its programs suddenly started to make sense for the first time, or have the teachers had some sort of educational epiphany? Unlikely.

The simple fact is that student cohorts change every year. And the smaller the school, the greater the chance of wild fluctuations.
When a school drops down the table, are the school’s programs ready for the dustbin? Have the teachers spectacularly lost the plot? Of course not. When the student cohort changes, so do the results.

When league tables first appeared, we knew it would take some years for them to disappear. It is clear, however, that the community is getting the message that league tables are a colossal waste of time and paper.

We will see the end of league tables.

Then, like the countries where students are on average achieving at higher levels than ours, we can put our energy into what really matters – attracting and retaining the best in teaching, giving schools and systems the support they need to become hubs of collaborative professional learning, and improving equity by targeting resources to students who need extra assistance, as recommended by the Gonski report into school funding.

Glenn Fowler
ACT Branch of the Australian Education Union

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