What’s really happening behind the walls of our public schools

by Bobby O’Keefe

For the past eight years, AIMS and Progress have been levelling the playing field when it comes to presenting information about school performance. The entire AIMS Report Card on Atlantic Canadian High Schools process is driven by a burning desire to ensure that students, parents, taxpayers, employers, and communities have the same amount of information that is held within the education establishment, and that the available information tells as complete a story as possible about performance.

Largely, that effort has had positive results. Each of the Atlantic provinces now has a system of provincial assessments to provide a measuring stick of progress. Each province has a reporting system of some kind to make that information public. Having reporting and information systems in place means decisions about education policy and methods can be based on solid information rather than assumptions and generalizations.

As in past years, new measures and information are available in this year’s Report Card. Most notably, both Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island high schools now record feeder achievement scores, which show how well students were doing in the grades leading to high school. In Newfoundland and Labrador, the return of the Indicators publication means we once again have data on the average level of teacher certification in each of that province’s schools.

However, there are also signs we’re slipping in places or stagnating in others. At the high school level, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick have reduced or eliminated exams and stopped collecting the teacher-assigned grades in those subjects where exams used to be administered. Nova Scotia, for example, hasn’t had a provincial science exam since 2005–06. New Brunswick’s anglophone sector ceased provincial exams in high schools more than five years ago and has given no indication that it’ll return. Attendance information is still only available in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador.

Perhaps the most egregious (and aggravating) policy keeping things from moving forward may come as a surprise: Freedom of Information Legislation and Right to Information Acts. Yes, the laws that are supposed to make information more public are actually keeping that information private.

For many years, New Brunswick has excluded both its universities and its District Education Councils (DECs) of New Brunswick from its Right to Information Act rules. This has allowed the Université de Moncton to opt out of providing information on performance of first-year students for several years. At the same time, DECs aren’t obligated to collect or provide data on school performance, so teacher-assigned grades have remained unavailable despite being the only measure of student achievement in New Brunswick high schools since provincial exams were dropped. On the bright side, New Brunswick will soon have a new law that covers universities and DECs.

Prince Edward Island, meanwhile, appears to be making no move toward including the University of Prince Edward Island in its Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, thus denying Islanders an important piece of information about their education system. So while we continue to see more school-performance information emerge from behind classroom doors, let’s not lose sight of what still needs to be done.

Provincial School-Performance Summaries

New Brunswick: Anglophone
Petitcodiac Regional School improved from a B to a B+ to take the top spot in New Brunswick’s anglophone sector. Sir James Dunn Academy in St. Andrews and Saint John High School maintain B+ grades from last year to take second and third spot, respectively. Chipman Forest Avenue School and Caledonia Regional High School in Hillsborough both saw grade improvements of two levels from a C to a B-, while Minto Memorial High School also had a two-grade-level increase from a D to a C.

Last year’s top school, Upper Miramichi Regional High School in Boiestown, saw its grade fall from an A to a B, mainly because of a decline from an A+ to a B+ in post-secondary achievement. Grand Manan Community School dipped from a B- to a C, and Nackawic Senior High School fell from a B to a C (both drops can also be attributed to a fall in post-secondary achievement).

New Brunswick: Francophone
For the first time in four years, New Brunswick’s francophone sector has a new top school: Saint John’s Centre scolaire École Samuel-de-Champlain maintained a B from last year’s Report Card but rises from fifth spot to first. École Marie-Gaétane in Kedgwick slipped to second spot this year after three years at the top, falling from an A- to a B. École Sainte-Anne in Fredericton came third with a B. Final grades for other schools stayed reasonably consistent, with no school moving more than a single grade level, apart from École Marie-Gaétane.

Newfoundland and Labrador
J.M. Olds Collegiate in Twillingate stayed in the top spot in Newfoundland and Labrador, maintaining its A-. Last year’s second- and third-ranked schools, Bay d’Espoir Academy in Milltown and Gonzaga High School in St. John’s, both dropped from a B+ to a B, respectively, but flipped places in the rankings. This year Corner Brook Regional High School received a final grade, a B, for the first time since opening. The only significant grade change in any school was Dunne Memorial Academy in St. Mary’s, which fell from a B to a C, largely due to a decline in its post-secondary achievement grade, which sank from a C+ to an F.

Many Newfoundland and Labrador schools don’t receive a final grade because of the large number of small schools scattered around the province. To protect the privacy of students, we don’t receive post-secondary results for schools with fewer than five students at any one university or college. Without those results, no final grade is provided; however, there is a wealth of information about student performance within the AIMS Report Card for those unranked schools.

Nova Scotia: Anglophone
The biggest change for Nova Scotia’s English schools was the availability of the Junior High Literacy Assessment results, giving us for the first time a measure of student performance before reaching high school. However, the change made little difference at the top of the ranking, since the top three schools from last year stayed the same.
Cape Breton Highlands Academy in Terre Noire maintained an A- and stayed in first place for the third consecutive year. Charles P. Allen High School in Bedford and Barrington Municipal High School both fell from an A- last year to a B+ but remain in second and third spots, respectively. Two schools saw a two-grade-level improvement, with both Memorial Composite High School in Sydney Mines and West Kings District High School in Auburn moving from a C+ to a B.

Nova Scotia: Conseil scolaire acadien provincial
This is the second year we’ve graded schools in Nova Scotia’s Conseil scolaire acadien provincial separately because of differences in curriculum. Four schools have a final ranking this year, with last year’s second-place school, École secondaire de Par-en-Bas in Tusket, improving from a B- to a B to take the top spot. École Nda in Cheticamp earned a B- to place second. Last year’s first-place school, École du Carrefour in Dartmouth, saw its final grade fall from B to B-, putting it in third place.

Prince Edward Island
Several schools in P.E.I. missed out on a final grade because of a lack of information on the achievement of Island students at university and community college. Once again, we had no data from UPEI, thanks to the province’s continuing policy excluding post-secondary institutions from Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act that would provide valuable information about school performance in that province. Five schools received a final grade of B-. Charlottetown Rural High School moved from second to first, despite falling from last year’s B. Last year’s first-place school, Kensington Intermediate-Senior High School, also fell from a B and dropped to fourth. Bluefield High School in Hampshire was the only school to see an improvement, rising from a C+ the year before.

Discussing change isn’t change
As always, it’s important to consider all of the information and not just the final grade for any school. Examine the information found in the insert in this edition of Progress or in the AIMS online Report Card at www.aims.ca. Check measures relative to other schools (absolute grades) and against reasonable expectations for your particular school (in-context grades). Then, if you’re not happy with those results, ask the school principal what he or she is doing to make it better. And, perhaps more importantly, ask your neighbours and your community what, if anything, they’re doing too.

Bobby O’Keefe is the research manager for the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.