The problem with school league tables

The problem with school league tables

With Year 12 students across NSW and the Australian Capital Territory having now received their final school grade, the inevitable comparisons between schools’ top ‘Band 6’ results will follow.

School league tables have long been controversial because they look at a single measure – academic results, and a narrow interpretation of success on that measure – to imply a school’s good or bad performance, and improvement or decline on previous years’ results.

A 2020 report from the Mitchell Institute found that just 26% of Australian students enter an undergraduate degree based on their ATAR, leading many to ask the question: is this increasingly unpopular tertiary ranking really worth the stress it causes?

A more recent study found that Year 12 applications through the University Admissions Centre are at the lowest level in more than a decade as demand for higher education falls.

Results don’t reflect reality of school performance

Professor Jim Tognolini is Director of the University of Sydney’s Centre for Educational Measurement and Assessment. He says while there is nothing wrong with rewarding achievement per se, it is the way that these results are misused after their publication that threatens the system.

“The process of aggregating the results by school and then using these results to rank order schools is flawed and misleading. It requires the results [e.g., the Band 6’s] to be equivalent across courses, and they are not,” Professor Tognolini told The Educator.

“The tables are not defensible because the Band 6s’ are not comparable across the different subjects.”

Professor Tognolini noted however that the percentage of students achieving each band is useful in enabling individual schools to monitor the performance of their students over time in each subject.

“Schools can answer the question, ‘are our students performing better in these subjects over time?’” he said.

“Given the above, the practice of counselling students into subjects based on trying to maximise the number of Band 6 performances rather than on what subjects the students are interested in and best suit their future needs, is also not defensible.”