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School league tables are not straightforward

By John Töns - posted Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Parents quite rightly demand access to information about their child’s performance at school. All schools have reporting processes in place - school reports and parent interview nights are the standard media used.

Parents know that there is a great deal more information collected about schools and students than is ever communicated to them. For most parents the school reports and parent interview nights are largely meaningless so the hope is that if only they would have access to all the information collected about schools and students they would be in a position to make some meaningful decisions about their children’s education.

It seems a very simple exercise. Give parents access to their children’s standardised test results, give parents access information about school performance both in standardised tests and in public examinations. Furthermore introduce grades that mean something: give students a mark out of 100 for each subject, let them know how well they performed compared to the other children in the class. What could be simpler? Surely any resistance to providing that information suggests that teachers have something to hide? Surely it implies that teachers do not want parents to have the information because it might show them up as incompetent?


Whether or not parents will be given access to all this information will ultimately depend not on teachers but on parents: they will create the political climate which will either give them unfettered access or which will deny that access. My objective in this article is to give parents a set of reasons why unrestricted access to all data is not necessarily a good thing.

But a little about myself first. I chose to become a teacher because of my own negative experiences with schooling. I was convinced there had to be a better way. I retired from teaching in 1993. On the way I worked in both private and public schools, I developed expertise in dealing with so called “difficult” students, I was employed as a ministerial adviser and prepared a number of briefing papers about different aspects of disadvantage. I also wrote papers about the way information about student performance ought to be used. Much of what I wrote was never published - apart from one book which I co-authored about multicultural education. My audience was essentially teachers, bureaucrats and of course government ministers.

What was so bad about my schooling? I arrived in Australia in 1959 - spoke no English yet on the basis of a standardised test given in English it was deemed that I was unsuited for academic work and so was to be sent to a Technical High School. Two things were wrong with that. The first was that the test was not a good tool to assess my potential, and second, it reflected a culture that assumed that technical education was for people who were regarded as being not particularly clever.

Standarised testing is still being used in our schools to sort students. One of the reasons for its appeal is that it shifts responsibility for determining people’s abilities and needs away from the teacher on to the “system”. The way we want to use standardised test results reflects a fallacy - the fallacy of extrapolating from the general to the particular. If you test 1,000 students then the results that you get will be reasonably reliable. The moment you translate these results to account for the ability of a particular student the margin of error is so great to make the result meaningless.

For example, I was supervising a student teacher. She had given the class a simple test. One student did not get one answer right. This student was disruptive and she had been warned by the class teacher that the student was lazy and not particularly bright. I looked at the test and said to her that she ought to give the student 100 per cent. I told her to have a close look at the test and tell me why she should do that. She did and she gave the student a 100 per cent. The reason was simple this student would have got 100 per cent if you substituted the multiplication sign for the plus sign. The regular teacher explained that when she took on the class she had been warned that he was thick and that he was disruptive - consequently she had never really bothered with the student. This episode encouraged the teacher to spend more time with the student and when I saw the class again - all disruption had disappeared - he was one of the top students.

The first lesson is knowing that standarised test results, or the school’s scores on these tests, do not give you any reliable information about your child’s ability. In fact we should discourage their use because they can act as a smokescreen behind which teachers and administrators can hide.


What about producing league tables based on public examination results - surely these are reliable and useful?

There are two very distinct reasons for not wanting any league tables and these have everything to do with your own child: it will be your child who will be disadvantaged if we go down the league table track.

Let me illustrate with a story. Vincenzo was one of the brightest students I ever taught. When I encountered Vincenzo he was in year 1F - basically this group of children had IQs of under 70. Vincenzo was there because he had been in Australia for less than four months, he spoke no English and only managed to get those questions right on his IQ test which did not require English skills. I managed, after a great deal of argument (I was in my first year of teaching) to get Vincenzo in the top class and furthermore I paired him with one of the best students in the group. The result? Vincenzo flourished but so did the student with who he was paired. The challenge of assisting Vincenzo improved his partner’s skills. Schools which become ghettos either of the highly capable or the very poor do not help anyone.

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About the Author

John Töns is President of the Zero Carbon Network a network established to promote clear thinking about the issues associated with climate change. In addition to operating the only zero carbon boarding kennels in South Australia he is also completing a PhD at Flinders University in the area of Global Justice. John is a founding member of a new political party Stop Population Growth Now.

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