Masters warns against school league tables

Media release

Back to media releases

Monday, 29 Jun 2009

For immediate release Monday 29 June 2009
Masters warns against school league tables

Australia must avoid the allure of simple but potentially misleading approaches to comparing the performances of schools, according to the chief executive of the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER), Professor Geoff Masters.

Speaking in Sydney ahead of the first in a series of nation-wide seminars for school leaders on the use of student achievement data, Professor Masters said Australia had the opportunity to learn from overseas experience and avoid simple but problematic approaches to the construction of school league tables.

Professor Masters’ comments follow an agreement in April by the Australian, State and Territory Education Ministers to provide parents, teachers and communities with access to nationally consistent information about each school’s results, its workforce, its financial resources and the student population it serves. His comments also follow last week’s decision by the NSW parliament to ban the publication of league tables by newspapers.

“Fundamental to the government’s transparency agenda is the belief that parents and members of the public should be able to compare schools,” Professor Masters said. “But schools operate in different contexts with students from very different backgrounds. If test results of all schools are reported in a simple league table, it is difficult for readers to know whether differences between schools are due to the quality of teaching or to differences in the populations they serve.”

Professor Masters said some countries attempt to deal with this complication by adjusting schools’ results for the socioeconomic and other backgrounds of their students. He said that in England, for example, league tables are constructed which compare schools not on their actual test results, but on how much better or worse their results are than expected. “The more disadvantaged the students in a school, the lower the expectation of their performance. This approach can be misleading. It can lead to the conclusion that a school is performing well, even when its students are performing relatively poorly,” he said.

An alternative, Professor Masters argues, is to report actual test results and, if these are to be compared, to restrict comparisons to ‘like-schools’ – schools in similar circumstances and with similar student intakes.

“We should not be concealing actual student performance levels and setting lower expectations of disadvantaged students in an attempt to make direct comparisons of schools in very different circumstances,” he said. “Real transparency means reporting schools’ results as they are – without adjustment – and making every effort to compare like with like and to understand the circumstances under which individual schools are operating.”

Other presenters in the national ‘Evidence-Led Leader’ seminars are Professor Gabrielle Matters and Dr Neil Carrington. Professor Matters outlines important pre-conditions for assessment information to play a powerful role in educational debate and policy: sound assessment instruments and users with the capacity to interpret assessment data. She argues that educational leaders should be taking better advantage of research findings, new technologies for assessment and learning, and advances in educational measurement.

Dr Carrington stresses the importance of schools leading the national literary and numeracy testing (NAPLAN) process within a total school vision, not merely managing testing as an isolated event.

Seminars are being conducted in Sydney on 1 July; Brisbane, 16 July; Melbourne, 17 July; Perth, 21 July; and Adelaide, 22 July Further information on the Evidence-Led Leader Series is available from ACER Leadership Centre website