Posted tagged ‘school league tables’

Better by leagues?

December 1, 2009

Guest blog by
Dr Kevin Denny
School of Economics, UCD
Geary Institute, UCD

Reading Saturday’s Irish Times I came across a feature by Kate Holmquist with the sub-title ‘Many parents are questioning whether league tables can give a full picture of the educational quality provided by different kinds of school.’ It’s an interesting and important topic and I assumed that this was a piece on other countries experience of league table. I was surprised that it was, in fact, about Ireland. The small problem here is that we don’t have league tables in Ireland. Their publication is, as Kate mentioned, illegal under the Education Act. What was being referred here were the tables of ‘feeder schools’ published by the Irish Times and whose publication is eagerly awaited by parents.

While I don’t wish to pick on this article in particular, it was like most of the ‘debate’ on the topic: one-sided and rather superficial. Discussions of this topic are monopolized by those opposed to league tables; they simply rehearse the same old arguments, but without considering alternatives seriously, and they ignore the experience of other countries and indeed the substantial research literature on the subject – some of which might actually support their position.

The basic argument is the following: school is multi-dimensional, it’s not all about points. Such tables don’t reflect that. Ergo, nothing is better than something. Since deciding what school to send their children to is one of the biggest decisions many parents make it is fundamental that they are in a position to make an informed decision. Hence we need a balanced and informed discussion of this topic. During the Celtic Tiger there was a movement away from public schools to fee-paying schools, a trend which seems to have been reversed recently. Parents believed they are getting more by moving their kids to the private sector and for some parents the outlay on fees is considerable. But is it justified? Are fee-paying schools all that good and are the state schools all that bad? Probably not, but parents cannot know for certain because the information that might help them decide is censored. Ireland, incidentally, is out of line with other English speaking countries in publishing no information on school performance.

Making an informed decision is precisely what the educational system seems determined to prevent. Those who argue against providing exam and other data on schools are implicitly saying that they know the limitations of this information but that the public does not. In other words, parents and students are not intelligent enough to understand the information and need to be protected from their own ignorance. This argument is both baseless and condescending.

If the government were to be consistent and apply this argument more generally, then the public would be kept in the dark about an awful lot more. For example, the government and its agencies publish large amounts of data on the economy, such as inflation, growth, earnings etc. Such information is routinely misinterpreted by journalists, politicians and sundry other commentators. It’s an occupational hazard if you are an economist and doubtless I commit similar errors in other areas. However no reasonable person would argue that the public should be kept in the dark on these matters.

Look at the packaging of food in your kitchen: much of it contains details of the nutritional content; however most of us have only the vaguest notion of what it all means. Should we censor it? No, because there are people who do understand it, and in a democracy people make up their own minds.  A good analogy is how we measure the economic performance of a country. The best known indicator is GNP per capita and everyone knows that this is limited. It takes no account of non-market activity or the impact on the environment. However we do not censor this data, we supplement it with additional indicators. For example, economists have been developing ‘Green accounting’ which takes environmental factors into account.

Curiously, successive governments are in favour of ‘crude league tables’ when it suits them. For many years the OECD has been collecting comparative data on students’ performance, for example the PISA data. When this data shows Irish students in a favourable light, the educational establishment is only too happy to point this out as a ringing endorsement of our educational system. But these international league tables are every bit as crude as comparing Leaving Certificate results across schools. They take no account of differences in funding, curriculum, teaching methods or anything else across countries.

The principal argument against providing information on exam results by school is that this is a crude indicator of what schools do. It is argued that education is multi-dimensional and schools do more than simply send students out to the world with their Leaving Certificates. In addition, the exam results take no account of the inputs: schools vary both in the resources available to them and the composition of the student body. In economic terms, exam results are a measure of ‘output’ rather than ‘value added’ which is what we want to know. While these points are have some validity they provide no justification for the current impasse. The intelligent response to crude league tables is to have sophisticated league tables. That is, since there is more to schools than just exams this is an argument for providing more information, not less.

There is no reason why a comprehensive set of indicators cannot be provided on key aspects of what schools do.  Priority should be given to those factors that are most important to parents and students, and for them, whether we like it or not, academic performance is a priority. We know this because the 2004 survey by the Education Research Centre showed very clearly that a significant majority wanted more information on a whole host of academic variables including examination results. In addition, information on the number of migrants and special needs students in a school could be included since this can affect results.

The question of measuring ‘value added’ has been dealt with in England which now provides value added tables for secondary schools based on the improvement in students’ performance over time. An easy way of doing this in Ireland is to use the two state exams. Comparing the difference between the performance at Leaving and Junior Certificate, at the level of the school, gives a simple measure of value added. It is not perfect – no measure is – but it has the advantage of being easily calculated and understood. To avoid the most invidious comparisons, a sensible strategy would be to take an average over, say, a three year interval to smooth out excessive variation and schools could be grouped into say twenty bands, the top 5%, the next 5% and so on.

In our Information Society, knowledge is a key currency and access to it is highly unequal. Many individuals, those of us with good social and professional networks, probably have a good idea of where the good schools are. But on grounds of equity, everyone should be well informed. There is a whole body of science devoted to measuring, presenting and interpreting information scientifically. It is called Statistics, and it is time the educational establishment put it to use to serve the public interest rather than making excuses so as to defend the status quo.