By Nancy King

Parents and students should look beyond just the letter grades issued in a new report card of the province’s high schools and carefully review all the measures that went into determining the marks, its co-author says.

The Atlantic Institute for Market Studies issued its fifth annual report card of Atlantic Canadian high schools Thursday. For the second straight year, Cape Breton Highlands Academy in Terre Noire was the top-ranked Cape Breton school, coming in third overall in Nova Scotia. The think-tank noted the Strait Regional School Board also scored two other schools in Nova Scotia’s top 10 — Dalbrae Academy in Mabou and Richmond Academy in Louisdale.

The top school under the Cape Breton-Victoria Regional School Board was Baddeck Academy, which was sixth overall. All of the schools were also in the top 10 last year.

AIMS acting president Charles Cirtwill said parents should investigate how their children’s schools did on underlying scores that determine the rankings.

“What you see is what we’ve been saying over the last five years — there’s no ideal design for a school,” Cirtwill said. “You see very effective schools that are in large urban centres and very effective schools that are in small rural communities. Some have low (socio-economic status), some have relatively affluent communities that they serve. I think that sends a message to everybody that if you’re attending a public school there’s no excuse for failure, these schools should be able to serve your needs and you need to hold them to that standard.”

In addition to academic factors such as school marks in math, science and language arts, and provincial exam results, it also involves inputs such as enrolment, student-teacher ratio and socio-economic status intended to level the playing field for schools in different settings. To control that, the report includes a performance-in-context grade for each school, determining how a school fared when compared to schools with similar circumstances.

No school in the province achieved an A grade, with about 90 per cent of schools staying within a grade — plus or minus — of their standing in last year’s report card.

“Basically they’ve held their own,” Cirtwill said.

John Astephen, director of programs and student services with the Cape Breton-Victoria board, said he personally doesn’t agree with ranking schools. It’s been a common criticism since the first AIMS report card was released.

“But the AIMS report does provide us at system-level, and also at school-level, with another piece of information and it may be helpful,” Astephen said. “I think what’s really helpful to us is that in recent years we’ve been generating our own data from provincial assessments and ongoing classroom assessments that teachers do to help us make good education decisions.”

He noted the board has been encouraging schools to look at data available to them, determine where concerns lie and set goals for improving student achievement.

Jack Beaton of the Strait Regional board said he believes there’s nothing to be gained through ranking schools, and noted in some cases there are inconsistencies in the data available for individual schools.

“When you don’t have the same information covering all schools, comparison has no validity,” he said.

Cirtwill said boards in general should take on the task of compiling data and making it public.

“I think it would be far better for them to take this job out of my hands, collect as much information as they can and release it, openly and publicly so that everyone can have a look at it,” he said.