Reality Check


The view hasn’t changed much from here


By: Charles Cirtwill


It is fitting that the third AIMS’ report card on Atlantic Canadian high schools is being released only a few months after the latest international data from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). In 2001, the Atlantic Provinces ranked seventh, eighth, ninth and 10th out of the ten Canadian provinces on the international assessments in reading, math and science. In 2003, only Newfoundland and Labrador has escaped the basement -sitting at either 5th or 6th out of ten depending on the measure – with the other three provinces busily rearranging the deck chairs.


The relative success of Newfoundland, and the continued frustration in the other provinces, should be considered in the light of some of the changes that have occurred since AIMS’ Report Card on High Schools first hit the pages of Progress magazine.


Since then, Newfoundland has introduced a set of comprehensive provincial exams across a broad range of subjects. The province has continued to expand the data available about individual schools and school districts in its online K-12 database and has lived up to its commitment (made in the weeks following the release of that first AIMS’ report card) to release a school by school comparison report of key indicators. 


In contrast, Nova Scotia has never released the school by school comparison promised by its Education Minister in response to the first AIMS’ report card. Nova Scotia still reports no school by school accountability information, and only provides summary level results of the provincial exams now administered in grades 8 and 12.


Similarly, New Brunswick has stepped back. It recently announced a serious restructuring of its testing regime, including the elimination of several exams, and the data that are publicly available are still not in a format that allows for easy comparison across schools or over time.


On Prince Edward Island, the prevailing attitude towards educational accountability is exemplified by the fact that the Premier is just now striking a committee to explore why the Island does so poorly on the PISA assessments even though AIMS, and others, have been placing hard data before stakeholders on PEI for many years highlighting this challenge and calling for change.


Despite this mixed reaction, AIMS has collected even more data from the provinces and local school districts for this latest report card. Student retention year over year has been added, expanded provincial exam results have been secured and more post-secondary institutions have supplied achievement results. In fact, the measures reported have more than doubled this year.


In the first two report cards, only contextual grades were assigned and reported – how well a school did against “reasonable expectations” for that school. This time AIMS will be reporting both contextually adjusted results and the absolute comparative performance of each school.


Success, both absolute and in the face of significant challenges, will be identified and celebrated. It is this identification of how to make schools work in every context that is at the heart of the Report Card concept.


First, our children deserve the best education we can give them. Second, education happens in individual classrooms and in individual schools, not in some amorphous “system”. Third, until the performance of individual schools is tracked and reported publicly there is little incentive to change and no evidence on which to base that change.


This message is reverberating within and beyond the education establishment in our region. Principals, teachers, parents, students, community members, mayors, municipal councils, school board representatives, school advisory councils and even provincial politicians have all contacted AIMS interested to learn more about the Report Card and how to apply it to help their local schools.


National philanthropic foundations with proven records of supporting innovative public policy research have united with members of our local community to put the resources in place to sustain and expand this work into the future.


One vocal proponent of this work is Halifax entrepreneur John Risley, who in a recent speech announced publicly his commitment to the AIMS project. Risley points out that the wealthiest country in the world is Luxembourg and it exports knowledge and knowledge- based services. “Value is going to be created in knowledge and the raw material input is the academic capability of our youth…” he says. “I believe in Atlantic Canada, I want to be part of the process that sees us succeed as a region.”


With this support and the growing number of community partners and advocates, AIMS is working to make a difference in the region’s schools and to build a model of measurable school success and targeted educational investment that can be replicated elsewhere.


Charles Cirtwill is the Vice President of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a Halifax based public policy think tank, and head of the Institute’s Education and School Reform Project.