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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Why you might be drawing the wrong conclusions from school league tables

To reduce education purely to examination results is a travesty, writes Michael Lambert

it is time, argues Michael Lambert, to move beyond traditional methods of judging a school's performance.  Jeff Topping / The National
it is time, argues Michael Lambert, to move beyond traditional methods of judging a school's performance. Jeff Topping / The National

There are three main ways in which the academic outcomes of schools have been, are being and will soon be judged. Each has its own merit, but used alone will give you a one-dimensional picture of a school.

The first and most well-known method is the traditional league table that ranks British curriculum schools on the number of A*/A grades the students achieve in any given year. What this really tells us is how able any given cohort of students is, how like-minded their peers will be and therefore how academic their onward journey into tertiary education is likely to be.

The higher the A*/A at GCSE and A Level, the more able the cohort and the more selective the university they are likely to attend. Why is this useful to know? Many parents and students like to know this information because they have high aspirations for themselves or their offspring. While it is rather prosaic to acknowledge that graduates from the world’s top ranking universities have a significantly higher chance of going on to earn big-figure salaries in top leadership positions in their respective fields, it is nonetheless a pragmatic consideration for many.

However, as Mary Beard, the Cambridge classicist, recently tweeted: “Can we shout, once and for all, that the reason for going to uni is NOT just about getting a bigger salary . . . it is about EDUCATION.” For many parents and students who value education for education’s sake, who champion the intellectual life and who wish to find a means by which to identify like-minded peers for their sons and daughters then the traditional league table is a very good guide.

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In recent years, however, there has been an increasing call for greater transparency about how much progress students make in school and not simply their ultimate attainment grades. The argument goes that schools who only admit the most able students should get the highest A*/A in the league tables. Whereas, a school that admits a student whose national benchmark tests predict that they should achieve a B at GCSE but then goes on to achieve an A can be said to have added value to that student. Each grade above or below the prediction equates to 1 point so if a school has a value added score of +0.5 it means, on average, that students achieve half a grade higher in their examinations than predicted.

This figure reveals a great deal about schools who rank mid-table in the traditional league table. These schools do not attract exclusively the most able students and consequently they do not feature near the top. However, their value-added scores serve to differentiate them from their other mid-ranking competitors since they can identify how much value they add compared to other schools.

As with the traditional league table, however, this approach also has several shortcomings. It is not easy to distinguish how much value the school has actually added through the quality of the teaching and learning, how much value the students have added to themselves through their own hard work and determination and how much value the parents have added through their own support, which may include paying for additional tuition outside the school.

In addition a school can only add value up to a certain point. If a student who is predicted an A* grade in a national benchmark test actually goes on to achieve that A* at GCSE, the value added score for that student will be zero. This is a perfect score since the highest grade achievable at GCSE is an A*. However, if you were to rank schools by their value added score, zero would come below +0.5 despite the fact that a school may have achieved perfect outcomes for its students.

As such for schools that attract the most able students, who are all predicted A* and A grades, there is very limited upside for adding value, whereas there is considerable downside. A school that attracts moderately able students, however, will have as much potential for adding value as they will for subtracting value and a school that attracts the least able students will have limited downside potential for subtracting value below the bottom grade and maximum upside potential for adding value.

As such to judge a school by their value added score alone would be as lop-sided as judging a school on their traditional league table position.

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The third and final set of measures, which will come to dominate the UK education landscape over the coming years, are known as Progress 8 and Attainment 8. Progress 8 was introduced in 2016 and aims to capture the progress a student makes from the end of primary school to the end of secondary school. It is a type of value added measure, which means that pupils’ results are compared to the actual achievements of other pupils with similar prior attainment. The 8 refers to eight particular qualifications including mathematics (double weighted) and English (double weighted), three further qualifications that count in the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) measure and three further qualifications that can be GCSE qualifications (including EBacc subjects) or any other non-GCSE qualifications on the DfE approved list.

A student’s progress score is the difference between their actual Attainment 8 result and the average result of those in their prior attainment group. Like the older value added approach mentioned above, a positive score means students in this school on average do better at GCSE than those with similar prior attainment nationally and a negative score means students in this school on average do worse at GCSE than those with similar prior attainment nationally. This approach differs, however, in that it attaches worth to particular subjects only. Not all subjects will be included when calculating the Progess 8 score.

To reduce education purely to examination results is a travesty. However, if we are going to judge whether an institution is effective in delivering examinations then the above guide should help parents triangulate their understanding and formulate a three-dimensional judgement.

Michael Lambert is headmaster of Dubai College