Painful Truth: Fraser Institute school rankings useless without context

The top schools ensure their success by filtering for students who are already succeeding

We all know the Fraser Institute’s annual rankings of B.C. schools are bunk, right?

Every year for decades now, the right-leaning think tank has put out its ranking reports on elementary and secondary schools. In the early years, these were covered breathlessly by B.C. media, often front page on major papers and leading the nightly newscasts.

Every year, we hear how a small cadre of private schools are vastly superior to the majority of B.C.’s public schools in everything from graduation rates to test results.

But the rankings are deeply flawed, and always have been.

Do the rankings have some bearing on the quality of the teachers and administration at a school? Some, yes.

But to assume that a school with a low ranking has bad teachers, or ones with high rankings have better, is utter nonsense.

It’s not the schools, not for the most part.

It’s the students, and their families, and the way the top private schools get to pick and choose while the public schools must serve all comers that affect the rankings most strongly.

READ MORE: Fraser Institute releases latest BC high school rankings

Let us consider Little Flower Academy, a private Catholic school in Vancouver that is the tippy-top of the rankings and has been for years. It has a perfect 10 rating in the Fraser Institute system.

So how does Little Flower get these amazing results? What does it do to nurture such excellence?

Well, first, it doesn’t just let anyone in.

Little Flower’s website has a fairly thorough section on admissions for Grade 8 students. The process starts nearly a year before the students will sit in a desk at the academy.

The open house for prospective students is held in October. Then in November, students wishing to enrol the following year sit an exam, which costs $100. In addition to those requirements, students have to write a letter to the school talking about themselves, and provide report cards.

“Results achieved on the entrance exam are a very important factor,” notes the school’s site, and they are looking for students with “the academic potential to benefit from the programme offered at LFA.”

What do you have to do to enrol in Grade 8 at any public school in B.C.?

You have to be the right age and show up.

There are plenty of smart kids in public schools. There are plenty of committed parents who send their kids to public schools, who talk to the teachers, who worry about good grades and good behaviour.

But public schools get everyone. They get the kids who are perfectly nice but not that interested in math. They get the kids who are only interested in math and can’t stand English.

They get the kids who just arrived as new refugees, are traumatized, and speak zero English. They get kids whose parents work three jobs and don’t have time or money for extra academic help.

Kids with learning disabilities. Teens with untreated anxiety or depression.

Frankly, they also get kids raised by unstable, absent, or plain bad parents. The kids who lash out with words or violence some days.

With few exceptions, those kids are not getting through the exams and filtering process to get into Little Flower or the other elite private schools around B.C.

It’s not a surprise that private schools hit a lot of home runs with their kids when it comes to academic achievement and graduation. They picked their students from the ones who were already on third base.

Rankings based on numbers tell you a part of the story, but they can only ever tell you a part.

A school with good rankings suddenly starts declining. Is it because the teachers suddenly started failing? Or is it because changing demographics brought more poor, refugee, ELL, or disabled students to the school?

Heck, the teachers could be working twice as hard, and the numbers could still go down.

Without knowing that, you can’t know what the numbers mean. And the Fraser Institute has never been interested in providing that context.

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