Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Thank God for standardized test scores

Because of the Fraser Report and standardized testing, I now know the name of the worst school in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, and third worst school in the entire province.

The name of that school is Braemar.

So what's wrong with Braemar?

They have low standardized test scores.

Things are so bad at Braemar that The Fraser Report gave them a ZERO out of 10 in comparison to other Edmonton schools and ranked them 273 out of 276 in Alberta.

Oh by the way, 100% of the students who attend Braemar are special needs and are either a pregnant or parenting teen ranging from 13 to 19 years of age. That's right Braemar School, which is championed by Edmonton Public Schools, is charged with the sole purpose of providing an education in a supportive environment exclusively for pregnant and parenting teens.

However, don't let students like Kayley Foerster who was so determined to get her diploma that she wrote it while in labour with her son Peighton distract you from what's really important here -- Braemar has low standardized test scores.

It is critically important to not let the messy and human context of Braemar's students get in the way of accountability. As an Albertan and a tax payer we all have the right to know about Braemer's poor performance for two reasons. One, it helps parents choose; two, it helps schools improve.

Thanks to the Fraser Report and standardized test scores, Albertans are equipped with the information they need to make damn sure that if their teenage daughters get pregnant, they will not attend Braemar; and all those pregnant or parenting teens that feel so frightened and alone will know not to bother enlisting Braemar's help in getting extra support in the form of day care, financial advice and assistance, medical expertise and help with career choices and post-secondary admittance.

And now that the teaching staff at Braemar are aware that the rest of Alberta knows of their low scores and abysmal rank, they can redouble their efforts to improve their pregnant and parenting students' test scores by working with schools who have higher standardized test scores and rank. The bad news is that 6 out of the Fraser Reports top 10 schools have reported 0% or not applicable for their special needs population, and only 1 school has more than 10%.

But there is good news, like Braemer School, Rundle Academy is only one of two other schools that also report that 100% of their students are special needs. As an Albertan and a tax payer, I demand to know when the Braemer staff plan on visiting Rundle Academy or when staff from Rundle Academy will visit Braemer so that I know that they are collaborating in an effort to make Braemer better. After all, this is one of the very reasons we have The Fraser Report and standardized tests -- so public schools like Braemer and private schools like Rundle work together.

Rundle Academy is a private school that provides specialized education for students with diagnosed learning disabilities, and like Braemar, Rundle Academy also has a selection process. While Braemar's admissions policy only accepts pregnant and parenting teens, Rundle Academy also has an application procedure that includes submitting:
  • Completed application form
  • Copy of the student's birth certificate
  • Recent photograph of the student
  • Last two years of student's final report card where applicable
  • Most recent Provincial Achievement test results where applicable
  • $100 non-refundable application fee
  • Copy of the student's psych-educational evaluation, if applicable
  • SSAT results or the date on which your child will write the exam
Oh by the way, grade 11 and 12 offered at Rundle are limited to university prep courses; but the good news is that further assessment is usually waived if the students' academic records indicate that they have the necessary potential and academic background to be successful. After all, Rundle Academy takes pride in only accepting those students who are a good fit for their school.

Oh and one more thing, tuition for junior and senior high students at Rundle Academy ranges from $11,500 to $13,400 per year. Braemar, on the other hand, is a public school so there's no tuition.

Thank God for the Fraser Report and standardized test scores because without them, schools like Braemer and Rundle Academy would never work together to make Alberta schools a better place for kids...

Let's pause for a second. Does any of this bother you? Because it's starting to bother me...

Does anyone think for one-second that the context of the students' needs or the educators' teaching assignments at Braemar have much to do with the kinds of services offered or not offered at Rundle Academy?

Can you see how two schools with 100% special needs might have the responsibility of educating two very different groups of students? How does it help the citizens and tax payers of Alberta to compare a private school that has an admission's policy that determines if students are a good fit if they have academic records and background that indicate potential success and charge a tuition fee over $10,000 with a public school that educates pregnant and parenting teens for free?

And even if Braemar did have something in common with Rundle Academy, does anyone believe a private school in Calgary would utilize their time, effort and resources to help a public school in Edmonton?

I have absolutely no idea how this misuse of data could be sold as a public service.

People who need standardized test scores like to say that they offer accountability to the public. But this is asinine. Accountability is really about transparency, but there is absolutely NOTHING transparent about ranking and rating schools by their standardized test scores. Reducing the magnificently messy stuff that schools do everyday to a test score or grade conceals far more than it ever reveals and therefore is not transparent or accountable -- it's merely convenient.

If all you know about a school or student is their standardized test scores, then you don't know very much. Let me be crystal clear, I've never been to Braemar School or Rundle Academy, but I bet the teachers there are both working very hard to do right by their students and provide them with the best education they can. I won't presume to pass judgment on either Braemar or Rundle. And that is exactly what is so wrong about standardized test scores and The Fraser Report -- with them, people who have never stepped foot in either school can claim to know enough about them to rate and rank them. This is irresponsible and flat out unacceptable.

As tragic as it is that Braemar School has been so wrongly judged for its low standardized test scores, remember that every school suffers from this primitive form of information and misuse of data. Governments that hand over standardized test scores to third party organizations so that they can pit schools against one another by ranking and rating them is the equivalent of handing someone who is drunk the keys to their car, and the school board associations that support the government's release of this data are accomplices to all this misuse. Just as institutions that sell their standardized test score snake oil as a public service should be held accountable for deceiving the public so too should the governments that provide the data and the school board associations that support it.

Michael Thomas, a co-author of The Fraser Report's Report Card says that "no one has ever shown me how it's damaging a school." I've gone through their report card and I noticed that you can contribute to the development of the Report Card by contacting Michael Thomas at 416.363.6575 with your suggestions, comments and criticisms. 

After hearing about how Braemar has been treated by the Fraser Report, I am going to call Michael right now and tell him why I think their misuse of standardized test scores is damaging to schools. Will you?

* A few edits were made to clarify confusion between Rundle College and Rundle Academy.


  1. Joe, tell us what you really think.
    Your comparison of these two schools is a powerful example that highlights the problems when data is misused. Thanks for articulating so clearly the problems with the Fraser Intitute rankings that we continue to endure here in BC and across Canada.

  2. Joe, you have some misinformation here and I wanted to clarify for you.It probably won't affect your opinion, but just wanted to be sure you had all the accurate info.

    You are comparing Braemar to Rundle ACADEMY, not Rundle COLLEGE. Rundle Academy is specifically for students with learning disabilities and Rundle College is for students that meet entrance requirements (even though some of them may have learning disabilities!) and only offers university prep classes.

    Classes at Rundle Academy are usually 10 or fewer students and Rundle College classes are usually capped at 14. Both charge tuition. Both are great schools (I have taught at Rundle College, but I like teaching in the public system better. Let's just say, it wasn't a good fit... For the record, after my foray in the private system, I began more intensively conducting research on education policy and governance. Just sayin...

    Enjoy the last bits of your summer break!


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  4. have a simple and heartfelt thank you, from a UK teacher who also suffers from standardised testing and league table scrutiny triggering Ofsted.

    I have a son with Aspergers, he is way above average for his maths and way, way below average for his literacy. Guess how many tears and tantrums we go through due to the pressure on him to reach the golden Age Related level!

  5. Nicely done. Thank you for writing the article. There really should be one site; such as, or, or something else along those lines where the world could go to voice their thoughts and to galvanize a movement to rid the world of this most ridiculous, nonsensical approach.

  6. Thank you Tracey for pointing out some confusion I had between Rundle Academy and Rundle College. I made the necessary edits. Much appreciated.



    You might appreciate the same kind of idiotic thinking from Ohio.

  8. Fantastic article, Joe! Thanks for sharing.

  9. in 2010, The Fraser Institute, which is a right wing tank, tried to rank Manitoba schools but could not obtain as data accessibility was blocked by the premier (Greg Selinger) and the Manitoba Teachers' Society
    The Fraser Institute omitted First Nations schools in Alberta from their report.

    In Alberta since 2010, the government and education infrastructure threaten to block data available to The Fraser Institute. Here is the blurb from the Alberta School Rankings report which is available online from the Fraser Institute.

     Thomas Lukaszuk, Alberta’s Deputy Premier, has called our school performance reports a misuse of provincial test results. He claims they mislead you and he wants to redesign the tests so we can no longer produce the reports.
     Our school performance reports are valid and used by many thousands of thoughtful parents each year. We believe that you, Alberta’s parents, should have the right to decide how to use them.
     If you agree that the Alberta government should keep the provincial tests and leave our reports alone, send us an e-mail. We’ll keep you up-to-date on this situation as well as on all other news about our school performance reports.

  10. Great post, very well-written. Just want to pick up on your criticism of the idea of accountability, where you suggest: "it's merely convenient." In places like the UK, this sort of thing is neither about accountability nor convenience; it's about encouraging citizens who once had a right to a public service to think of themselves more as consumers in an educational supermarket where they can compare the ingredients and prices of the goods on offer.

  11. tongue firmly in cheek - I like it Joe! Nicely done. Keep fighting the good fight.

  12. The problem is not with tests which are built to be valid and reliable assessments of the system, providing data which can be used responsibly by teachers and schools to improve performance, the problem is with the misuse of that information to make invalid comparisons and rank schools. The Fraser Institute report would lose its percieved value if many of those who are ranked high would refute the "honour".

  13. Dave, I agree in that if schools are proud of their high scores or ashamed of their low scores they are both a part of the problem.

    Tools are never just tools. We shape our tools but then they shape us -- education is being shaped to the narrow and limiting scope of what standardized testing can measure and if we want to inspire schools to provide all children with the schools they deserve then we have to stop measuring what matters least and engage in a far more authentic form of system assurance than what standardized testing can accomplish.

    The government has a responsibility hear that I fear you continue to shirk.