media and think-tank researcher

Donald Gutstein

08 Feb '11

Eight Distortions and Other Problems in the Fraser Institute’s Report Card

The Fraser Institute says its report card is based on the Foundation Skills Assessment tests written by children in Grades 4 and 7 across the province. But is it really?

1. The actual FSA results account for less than half of a school’s ranking. The rest is based on the institute’s manipulations of the numbers.

Grades 4 and 7 reading, numeracy and writing tests account for 7.5 percent each, for a total of 45 percent. With so much of the ranking not based on actual test scores, distortions are created in the results a school obtains. Consider the case of Torquay Elementary in Victoria, which the Fraser ranked as 131st in its 2009 report. University of Victoria education professor Helen Raptis notes that the percentage of Torquay‘s Grade 4 students that met or exceeded expectations on the FSAs was 97 percent (for reading), 85 percent (writing), and 87 percent (numeracy). These figures, Raptis observes, are significantly higher than those for Pacific Christian School, also in Victoria, which scored 83 percent (reading), 69 percent (writing), and 76 percent (numeracy). Yet Pacific Christian ranked 108th.

Scored higher on Ministry of Education-administered tests, but lower on Fraser Institute rankings. Why? Let’s look at the other variables.

2. Twenty percent of a school’s ranking comes from differences between the results achieved by boys and girls. This artificially depresses the scores of schools with students of lower socio-economic status where, typically, gender differences are more pronounced.

Worse, and inexplicably, the Fraser gives more weight to gender differences than to the actual results. Gender differences in Grade 7 numeracy and reading tests (what happened to writing?) account for 10 percent each. The actual test results account for only 7.5 percent each.

3. Twenty-five percent of a school’s ranking comes from the percentage of tests “not meeting expectations.” This result penalizes low-performing schools by accounting for their low scores twice.

4. Ten percent of a school’s ranking comes from the percentage of tests not written in a school. This indicator was added in 2007 “to encourage schools to ensure a high level of participation in the FSA testing program.” It is a not-so-veiled attack on the BC Teachers Federation and parents who don’t want their children to write the tests.

That punishing the BCTF is the purpose of this component of the rankings can be seen by comparing the Fraser Institute’s BC and Alberta elementary schools rankings. This component does not exist in the Alberta report card where the union is not as activist in opposing mandatory testing.

5. Obviously, the elite boys and girls private schools—the ones that top the rankings—do not have gender differences. In this case the institute assigns an additional 10 percent to tests not written and 10 percent to tests not meeting expectation, with no rationale for the choices.

6. Nearly a third of BC schools do not enrol Grade 7 students. Students in these schools move on to middle schools, usually after Grade 5. However, the Fraser assigns the Grade 7 FSA results to the schools the children attended in Grade 4. This is not credible because it assumes that the middle school, where the student has studied for nearly two years, doesn’t contribute to student achievement.

7. The method of statistical standardization used throughout the ranking exercise makes small differences look large. Converting the results into a scale from zero to ten makes the differences appear even greater.

8. The worst problem with the rankings is that they take little account of individual and family differences among schools, which include socio-economic status, race and ethnicity, gender, disability, ESL and school location.

Numerous studies done in the U.S. have found consistently that these factors account fully for school differences. In fact, poor public schools may even do better than wealthy private schools, when these factors are fully accounted for.

In Canada, a 2006 Statistics Canada study found that “higher income is almost always associated with better outcomes for children.”

Ignoring such key factors can lead to some bizarre results. On the 2011 report card for BC elementary schools, for instance, Roosevelt Park in Prince Rupert was ranked 874th out of 875 schools in the province. David Johnson, an economist with the C.D. Howe Institute, also ranks BC schools and he does take some—but not all—socio-economic factors into account. Based on his rankings, Roosevelt Park, with 90 percent Aboriginal and 32 percent special needs students, rates as one of the top 17 schools in the province!

How is such an enormous discrepancy possible? And why does the institute manipulate the numbers so drastically?

As an ideologically driven organization, it can’t allow student achievement results to be related to income and other individual and family characteristics.

The purpose of the report card is to demonstrate—and repeat over, and over, and over again—that the school—its teaching, counselling and administration—is responsible for student achievement.

Its mission is transform an effective, well-functioning public education system into a jungle of schools competing for students, funding, teachers and yes! investors.

The report card is based on the doctrine espoused by the Fraser’s long-time friend and associate, Milton Friedman. In a 1955 essay, “The role of government in education,” Friedman first called for “the denationalization of education.”

In 1995, Friedman renewed his call to privatize public education in a major article in the Washington Post. (“Public schools: Make them private,” 19 Feb 1995, C7). Public schools were not really public at all, he declared, “but simply private fiefs primarily of the administrators and the union officials.” Government schools—his term for public schools—needed competition from the private sector, which could transform education, just like UPS and Federal Express had transformed package and message delivery.

Two years later the institute started ranking schools. The report card wraps the Friedman doctrine in “research” and delivers the results to the public thanks to the participation of a compliant commercial media.

And gradually the climate of ideas about the centrality of public education in a democracy changes.

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Harperism: How Stephen Harper and his think tank colleagues have transformed Canada

harperism cover

Margaret Thatcher transformed British political life forever. So did Ronald Reagan in the United States. Now Canada has experienced a similar, dramatic shift to a new kind of politics, which author Donald Gutstein terms Harperism. Among its key tenets:

  • A weakened labour movement – and preferably the disappearance of unions – will contribute to Canada’s economic prosperity
  • Cutting back government scientific research and data collection will improve public policy-making

The success of Harperism is no accident. Donald Gutstein documents the links between the politicians, think tanks, journalists, academics, and researchers who nurture and promote each other’s neo-liberal ideas.