This past week, Laggan Public School was ranked first among Ontario elementary schools by the Fraser Institute. You wouldn’t necessarily know it – Laggan Public School hasn’t advertised its high ranking and the Upper Canada District School Board hasn’t either. The school board did release a statement playing down the importance of the rankings, however. “There is no evidence to show that ranking schools improves student learning; nor does it offer a precise understanding of exactly where improvement efforts should be directed,” it says. “It is more accountable and useful to use data that measures achievement on a student-by-student basis. (…) It is unfair and misleading to compare schools based only on these scores.” The school board released a similar statement last year, when high school rankings were released, and its opinion has apparently not been affected by a first place ranking. The UCDSB is not alone in its criticism of the rankings – many other school boards publish similar statements.

One of the most common arguments against the rankings is that private schools, in general, rank higher. Report author Peter Cowley has said it’s because private schools have to deliver good academic results or parents will send students elsewhere. But private schools can, after all, choose who to admit based on academic performance. In addition, other critics, including the Peel School Board, have argued demographics, like how many students speak English or French as a second language, how many have special needs or the relative poverty of the student population, should be considered in the rankings. The report card knocks off points for a difference in achievement between boys and girls, but not for a difference in achievement between students of different socio-economic statuses, for example.

And, in order to put faith in the rankings, you have to believe in EQAO Testing. The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, for one, does not – it recommends random sampling instead and says “EQAO’s grade 3 and 6 tests do not give parents a true picture of their child’s progress.”

The Fraser institute says, “comparisons are at the heart of the improvement process,” and by comparing schools, we can learn how to improve. But looking at the rankings of just one school board makes you wonder what information is missing. Laggan Public, for example, is ranked first, while Morrisburg Public School, in the same school board, is down at the bottom, 2837 out of 2900. Is there really such a drastic difference between schools run by the same school board?
The most important factor in judging the ranking is whether it’s useful for parents and students. Would parents switch schools because of a low ranking, even if a student is performing well and likes the school? It seems unlikely – especially in this area, where news of possible school closures has highlighted how important proximity is to parents when choosing a school. The Globe and Mail reported in September how Ontario schools are already spending millions in order to compete with other schools – perhaps not the best use of money. Is competition between schools really an effective way to improve student achievement?

When even the winners, like the Upper Canada District School Board, don’t want the prize, you have to wonder if the competition was worth it at all.