LOVE IT OR HATE IT, a recent annual high school report card offers an added level of accountability in public education that our provincial government seems unable to provide.

Parents, teachers and students can all be thankful for that.

The Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, the right-leaning think-tank that began reviewing high schools seven years ago, has certainly been widely criticized for the data it releases annually.

Schools at the top are happy for the recognition. Those at the bottom typically dismiss the rankings as flawed research.

The project is undertaken by qualified professionals and includes adjustments that reflect socioeconomic factors that provide an obvious boost for some schools and may weaken results in others.

The final scores take into account results on provincial exams, student grades in language arts, math and science, student grading results and graduation percentages, enrolment and student-teacher ratios.

The big winners this year, in terms of final rankings, are Cape Breton Highlands Academy in Terre Noire, Charles P. Allen High School in Bedford and Barrington Municipal High School.

They finished in the top three positions, respectively. All received overall scores of A minus.

At the other end of the 55-school list, with C minus, were Musquodoboit Rural High School in Middle Musquodoboit, Cole Harbour District High School and Northeast Kings Education Centre in Canning in last position.

While the black-and-white numbers related to positions on the list among Atlantic Canadian high schools may be debatable, there is another element that has come into play over seven years of rankings: Shining a spotlight on clearly measurable outcomes has brought about improvements at many provincial high schools.

In fairness, the Education Department has also made improvements in assessment tools.

The return of provincial exams and ongoing assessment results, including comparisons nationally and internationally, have become much more available for parents in Nova Scotia.

The Nova Scotia Schools Accreditation Program represents another step forward.

But tests and curriculum bring challenges of their own.

Many teachers dismiss provincial tests as a limiting technique that may encourage “teaching for the test” rather than applying broader educational principles.

Given that results on tests surely reflect some measure of competency and comprehension among students, their criticisms are not universally embraced.

Curriculum standards also remain controversial.

Take a look at the curriculum standards for any grade level on the Education Department website. There is an abundance of unspecific, ambiguous language that is potentially open to such broad interpretation that judging outcomes may be highly arbitrary.

The institute has taken a useful step beyond curriculum outcomes to include other indicators that are more finite.

For instance, marks on provincial tests are a measurable yardstick across all schools. These results, also available from the province, are then combined with other results.

Education is about preparing students for their next steps in life. In that context, many parents would also find results on how a school’s graduates perform in their first year of university to be particularly helpful.

Given ongoing complaints from professors about students who are ill-prepared for university, this has been a concern for many families.

Even as the highs and lows are noted on the report card, improvements over time are perhaps even more noteworthy.

For instance, Hants North Rural High School in Kennetcook moved from a D five years ago to a B minus this year.

It reflects a trend that has seen schools in this province move from the worst in the region a few years ago to many more top placements in 2009.

“Schools, big or small, rich or poor, rural or urban, they’re all showing that they are capable of getting better,” report co-author Bobby O’Keefe told The Chronicle Herald.

“This . . . has never been about winning or losing. It’s about making schools better.”

That’s the wish of taxpayers, who have every right to demand an education system that prepares students for future positions in our workforce, and the wish of parents, who want the best possible education outcomes for their children.

If the institute report card adds a level of public scrutiny that encourages schools to produce better results, then it serves a highly useful purpose.