The Atlantic Institute for Market Studies has handed out its eighth annual report card on Nova Scotia high schools and says parents should be able to use it as a guide to choose which school their kids should attend.

The Halifax think-tank’s report card gives schools an overall grade, plus a ranking in specific subject areas.

“Some kids are going to be particularly interested in the social sciences, they’re going to be good at writing things, or they’re good at math, or they’re experimental and they like the sciences,” AIMS president Charles Cirtwill said Wednesday. “That’s the way you should be using this report card.”

Nova Scotia and other Atlantic provinces don’t allow parents to pick their child’s school and that needs to change, Cirtwill said.

But parents shouldn’t judge a school solely on its rankings or scores, he said. Some lower-ranked schools may have a high score in one or two categories.

“What parents should do who look at this report card and aren’t happy with the score that their high school has, is go immediately to the board website and look for out-of-boundary applications,” Cirtwill said.

But those kinds of transfers are not common, are generally frowned upon by school boards and are not practical in rural areas where there may be only two or three high schools in a county.

“It’s certainly not something we’re used to doing,” Cirtwill said, “but the rules are in place to move your child from one school to another, and I think if more of us did that when we weren’t happy with our schools, then our schools would get better.”

Even if transferring to a different school may not be a viable option in a rural area, he said there shouldn’t be a blanket policy that prevents students in urban centres from having a choice.

“You’re denying something you could do for the majority tomorrow, just because you can’t do it for everybody,” Cirtwill said.

Education Minister Marilyn More was less than enthusiastic about the school-shopping idea.

“I know it’s done in some areas of the country and there are advantages,” she said at Province House. “But not all our communities have the same access or level of public transportation. So there may be issues where socio-economic conditions would not allow certain families to participate in that kind of choice.”

Freedom of choice could mean an enrolment boom at some schools and program cuts at others, More said.

“With a declining school enrolment, we just think it’s a better investment of public money to improve every school.”

Liberal education critic Kelly Regan agreed. “It’s more important in Nova Scotia that we bring the schools that are not doing as well in rankings up to the same level as the more successful schools,” Regan said.

Interim Conservative leader Karen Casey, a former school principal and assistant school board superintendent, suggested it could be too complicated administratively to have parents pick their child’s school.

“If you’re going to look at a process other than what we have, it’s going to take a lot of study,” she said. And she said she’d like to know if parents even want such an option.

Cirtwill suggested that more money be invested in the education system to improve the choices in rural areas, such as by offering online courses.

“Technology is to the point now where you’re not trapped in the physical building anymore.”

Cirtwill said the report card shows that the province’s schools have improved since the first AIMS analysis was done in 2003, but they are still nowhere near as good as they should be.

The three top-ranked high schools in the province haven’t changed from last year — Cape Breton Highlands Academy in Terre Noire is in first place, followed by Charles P. Allen High School in Bedford and Barrington Municipal High.

Conseil scolaire acadien schools are graded separately. Last year’s runner-up, École secondaire de Par-en-Bas in Tusket, took over top spot among French-language schools, while École NDA in Cheticamp is second and last year’s first-place school, École du Carrefour in Dartmouth, is third.

With Jeffrey Simpson, provincial