My School was first launched in January with all the language of school transparency, accountability, choice and quality. It was also accompanied by more than a few misleading claims about its accuracy and how we can apparently compare schools. Prime Minister Julia Gillard still lists the My School website amongst her greatest achievements.
The Prime Minister started unveiling My School 2.0 a few weeks ago but promptly veiled it again in response to complaints, from private school groups, about the accuracy of the financial data. Now you (almost) see it; now you don’t. It is remarkable how My School 1.0 has been allowed to run all year with its fraudulent school comparison mechanism. We know who gets to push the right buttons in Canberra.
It is only when My School 2.0 is finally unveiled that we’ll know how badly we were misled by My School’s comparison of schools. We do know that the Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA), created so we can compare “similar schools”, has been substantially revised. While it still has a long way to go it better describes the family characteristics of students actually enrolled in schools, rather than the family characteristics of their neighbourhoods.
Julia Gillard called this earlier proxy measure valid and robust - but analysis easily showed that any definitive judgments we made about schools based on My School 1.0 were most likely to have been incorrect and unfair. I examined the 35 secondary schools across Australia which were all given an ICSEA value of 1000 and found that they were, in fact, very different schools. The proof will emerge in My School 2.0 when the new ICSEA values for these 35 schools will be shown as ranging from 941 to 1092. Vive la différence!
Why revisit what some might consider history? Because it is groundhog day; it is about to happen all over again. Once again we’ll soon be encouraged to make inaccurate comparisons, fuelled by insufficient data, all packaged in a website oozing the language of authority and accuracy.
The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) has worked hard to improve ICSEA. By using direct data about each school’s enrolment My School 2.0 will get a little closer - but it is a small improvement of just 7 per cent. Data from lower SES parents, whatever the school, is not sufficiently and consistently available. My School 2.0 will still not do what is claimed, particularly when it comes to comparing schools.
But it will look good. And the politicians and ACARA chiefs will be happy if we assume that the difference between what ICSEA predicts and actual NAPLAN test scores is due to the work done or not done by the school. Some of it is, but we don’t know how much - neither does ACARA. They haven’t done enough - or haven’t been given the time to do enough - to account for all the other impacts on school achievement.
Such impacts include the enrolment mix of boys and girls - even NAPLAN data shows a significant difference in the achievement of boys and girls. Then there is the problem of selected enrolments. We can’t be confident that the educational background of parents, factored into ICSEA, sufficiently takes this into account - or does ACARA believe that only kids of higher educated parents are likely to be found in selective public or private schools?
There are other unresolved problems. Does ACARA believe that the shuffling of enrolments from school to school, to garner the more desirable and avoid the others, is reflected in ICSEA? Should the NAPLAN scores of students new to a school be attributed to that school? My School 2.0 still attributes Year 7 NAPLAN scores to their new high school in States where Year 7 is the first year of secondary school.
As has been widely reported, My School 2.0 is sailing into other unchartered waters: it will include financial data on the site, but we’ll need to suffer several more versions of My School before they get this right, if at all. Government school income will apparently include amounts paid for school excursions or funds held in trust. It isn’t discretionary income. The income shown for non-government schools doesn’t include anything from trusts, foundations, share and property portfolios. Once again we are not comparing apples with apples.
It is interesting that ACARA’s Dr Peter Hill was quite sanguine about the imperfect data on My School. When questioned at a Senate Inquiry he said that the very publication of the data led to improvements in its quality. One wonders whether he tried that line out on the private school lobbyists in relation to their finance data.
While all this is happening independent schools are also realising the implications of their new and higher ICSEA values - an inevitable result of the new index being increasingly based on more direct data about enrolments.
Many of these schools have long claimed that their enrolment is representative of their communities and that they enrol the poor. Heartwarming stories aside, the new and more direct ICSEA does not support such claims. The new ICSEA values on the site have been known to school principals for much of November and the school sectors are now even further apart. For large samples of schools with secondary enrolments they show the ICSEA for government schools falling to around 965, Catholic schools largely unchanged at 1046, Christian schools rising to around 1025, Anglican schools rising to 1095 and high-fee schools rising to around 1150.
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