Should you use test scores to help you choose a school for your child?

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Last week, a piece was published in The Conversation by Stewart Riddle. It raised some interesting points about the factors parents should consider when choosing a school. Riddle argued that results from the Australian National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) that are available to parents via the MySchool website do not offer a good guide. This is because most of the difference in student performance can be attributed to socioeconomic background. Parents should instead visit a school and determine if it feels right for them.

I took issue with Riddle’s claim that, “Test results say nothing about teaching quality,” because this seemed like quite an extreme position. Clearly, test results must be influenced by teaching quality, even if that influence is compounded by other factors. Otherwise, we are in a position of denying teachers and schools any agency over academic outcomes; it’s all down to fate. That doesn’t seem like a reasonable position to hold.

A day later, a new analysis of the 2015 PISA and TIMSS results was released by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER). ACER’s Director of Educational Monitoring and Research, Dr Sue Thomson, made the following comment:

“It also matters which school a student attends. PISA shows that the school a student attends has an impact on outcomes. Disadvantaged students in average socioeconomic level schools, for example, are almost a year of schooling higher than those in disadvantaged schools. Similarly, disadvantaged students in advantaged schools are more than one year of schooling higher than those in average socioeconomic level schools.”

One of the reasons for this difference may be the different disciplinary climate between more and less advantaged schools. Within an overall context where Australia has a pretty dismal disciplinary climate:

“About one-third of the students in advantaged schools, and about half of those in disadvantaged schools, reported that in most or every class there was noise and disorder, students didn’t listen to what the teacher said, and students found it difficult to learn.”

So it’s not just about the feels on open day. The choice of school that a parent makes for his or her child can have a significant impact on academic outcomes. This seems to be at odds with the narrative that all schools are effectively the same. Socioeconomic background is just one factor that varies between schools but other school characteristics are also likely to matter. Real-world data is inherently messy but we can certainly point to examples of schools that are performing way above their socioeconomic destiny.

I have experience of working in a school in a socioeconomically disadvantaged part of London for seven years, during which time test scores rose dramatically. This was accompanied by a clear improvement in disciplinary climate and this was no accident: improving behaviour was a key part of our strategy to improve results. I can’t prove that one thing caused the other without running an experiment, but if we can’t make schools better then I’m not sure what it is that teachers and school leaders are trying to do.

And there is another interesting point to note about the ACER analysis. If test scores really do only tell us about the level of social advantage in a school population and nothing else then they still act as a good guide for parents because the data suggests that children generally do better in more socially advantaged schools. If, as seems more likely, they tell us about school quality more generally then they are also a good guide.

This is an analysis of just one metric. Parents choose schools on a range of factors such as arts provision, pedagogical approaches or a sense of duty to support the local school. Nevertheless, test scores are hardly irrelevant to the decisions they make.


2 thoughts on “Should you use test scores to help you choose a school for your child?

  1. Having visited several high schools over the past two years as a prospective parent, I have come to the view that such visits do you give you some information about each school. While the marketing materials of most schools use very similar language, the language used by a school leader on a small group tour can be very revealing about the expectations they have for students.

    For example, the principal of one northern Melbourne high school said, “We are more interested in turning C students into B students, than A students in A+ students”. This helped us decide this was not the school for our daughter.

    That said, I agree that NAPLAN provides useful information too, for the reasons you set out in the post.

    As a parent, I think it would also be useful to have information about the teaching methods favoured by individual schools.

    For example, in choosing a primary school I want to know whether the school uses a synthetic phonics program to teach reading in Prep.

    In choosing a secondary school, I want to know whether explicit instruction is the favoured method.

    Of course, this data is hard to collect and verify, but would go a long way to helping parents determine whether high NAPLAN scores are the results of students’ background or good teaching.

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