By Rick Conrad
As appeared on page A1

A Halifax school on its last legs has dethroned tiny Islands Consolidated School in Freeport, Digby County, as the top-ranked high school in the province in an annual report card prepared by a Halifax think-tank.

Queen Elizabeth High School, to be replaced by Citadel High in September, rose to the No. 1 position with an overall grade of B plus in the fifth annual report card on Atlantic Canadian high schools from the conservative-leaning Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.

“Going out on top,” Charles Cirtwill, acting AIMS president and co-author of the report, said in an interview Wednesday.

QEH edged out the small but mighty three-time champ in a couple of areas, including the provincial science exam.

For the first time since AIMS began its study in 2003, no Nova Scotia school scored higher this year than B plus. The top 11 schools rated a B plus. And none of the 72 schools ranked lower overall than a D.

“You’ve basically got 91 per cent of schools that have stayed (the same as last year) or improved a little bit,” Mr. Cirtwill said.

“I think that’s a very positive sign. I think that you’re seeing there’s a little bit of levelling off here. The key question becomes, how are they doing on their underlying scores year over year.”

He said no area of the province stood out as having the best schools. Urban schools didn’t whip the butts of rural schools or vice versa and size didn’t matter on its own.
“I think what we’re able to say even more absolutely now five years into this exercise is that there is no ideal school for Nova Scotia. What there is is the simple fact that if you run your school well, no matter where it is or how big it is, you’re going to be able to make a difference in students’ lives.”

An example is QEH and St. Patrick’s High School in Halifax, basically across the street from each other and often seen to be on opposite sides of the tracks socio-economically, he said.

“But St. Pat’s gets a B plus and so does QE. So the differences between the schools are at the margins. From that perspective, you’re seeing schools in the urban context that quite honestly do very well.”

Similarly, seven of the top 10 schools are in more rural areas of the province, while four of the bottom five schools are also in rural areas.

The Chronicle Herald obtained a copy of the report Wednesday. The institute will release it today.

Noel Hurley, superintendent of the Chignecto-Central regional school board, said Wednesday that he hadn’t seen this year’s report, but he has questioned the previous findings. Two schools in his board, River Hebert District High and Hants North Rural High, finished 71st and 72nd on this year’s report card, each with overall grades of D.

“My experience with the AIMS report in the past has been one where I feel that their research has been methodologically flawed,” he said.

When Mr. Hurley was a school administrator in Mount Pearl, N.L., two high schools right across the street from each other serving the same population were ranked differently partly because of how they kept attendance, he said.
Another Newfoundland school that didn’t do so well academically but excelled athletically was ranked in the top five in the province, he said.

“When I visited River Hebert school earlier in the year, the number of students doing advanced courses versus general courses was very high and that’s an indicator to me that the school is doing something very well,” Mr. Hurley said.

Carole Olsen, superintendent of the Halifax regional school board, said that ranking schools doesn’t give her staff the information they need to help improve student achievement.

“The list is neither cause for celebration nor cause for weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth,” she said in an interview. “I will be more interested in the data on the provincial literacy assessments or the provincial math results.”
Education Minister Karen Casey will release those at a news conference this morning at Province House.

The AIMS report card marked Nova Scotia schools in a dozen categories, including pupil-teacher ratio, socio-economic status, post-secondary participation and achievement, and how students did on the provincial science and language arts exams. AIMS couldn’t get information for other categories, such as teacher-assigned marks, attendance rates and provincial math exam results from the boards or the province in time for this report.

The institute had waged a four-year battle through the province’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act to force all boards to cough up their student achievement statistics. Halifax, Annapolis Valley and Tri-County put up the biggest fight or said they didn’t have the data in the form AIMS wanted. Halifax settled with AIMS in November, agreeing to provide less data than the institute originally requested.

Ms. Olsen said the Halifax board isn’t “shying away” from the report card, but “we believe we have more in-depth data that’s more directly related to student achievement than what the AIMS report provides us.”

However, Mr. Cirtwill said he believes that that’s the wrong attitude. A school district in Moncton is using the report card, along with provincial statistics and their own measurements, to help their students succeed, he said.

“It strikes me that if (school administrators) really want to improve schools, they need to have benchmarks, they need to know where they’re starting from and where they’re moving to, and so one way to do that is to embrace this kind of exercise.”

As for Islands Consolidated in Freeport, which counts 168 students from grades Primary to 12, principal Mac Bishop says it feels good to be No. 2, despite leading the report for so long.

“I still think we have done extremely well,” he said. “You’re talking about a high school that has 53 kids. And if we can come in second to a relatively large school like Queen Elizabeth, I’d say we’re doing all right.”

To view the complete report, click here.
To view the AIMS news release, click here.
To connect to the AIMS On-Line High School Report Card, click here.