Why School Rankings are Stupid
22 Jun 17 by Nick Carter, Director of Teaching and Learning
A colleague of mine used to do this really odd thing in his classes: at the start of the year – before his students got to know him – he would offer to rank the boys in terms of their worth as humans.
The smaller, bookish students would be sent to the back of the line while the strapping rowers were escorted to the front. Adjustments sometimes had to be made – boys without any badges on their blazers would need to be shuffled rearwards, and a child with really neat hair might be bumped up a few places.
This sounds horrifying. What kind of school would employ such a dinosaur? Where were the teacher’s pastoral instincts? What kind of macho fantasy world did he live in?
As you may have guessed, the teacher wasn’t really a boofhead. He was trying to teach the boys a lesson about ranking systems. Or, to be precise, about how harmful and arbitrary our obsession with ranking everything is. I hope his students understood this. I dread to think about Parent-Teacher Evening if not.
Our lust for hierarchies is nowhere more visible than in the HSC, of course: eighty-thousand young men and women lined up in order of merit. Pink Floyd would have a field day. Most of these kids will never know each other’s names but they are nonetheless pressed into competition with each other.
I suspect this all falls into the ‘necessary evil’ basket, though. If anyone can come up with a better way of letting universities sort out eighty thousand candidates, let me know. Perhaps the answer is closer than we think; should we be looking for alternatives to NESA?
The Sydney Morning Herald school ranking system fascinates me, too. Depending on who you ask – and where their school is ranked – it’s either a valid measurement of an institution’s drive for excellence or a corruptible and unfair endorsement of academic selectivity that penalises IB schools for supplementing the HSC. I’ve worked at places where the school’s SMH ranking has been a source of shame one year – evidence of the silliness of the whole system – then splashed on the front of a prospectus the next. So which one is it? Worthwhile data or damaging distraction?
Again, it depends on who you ask. If you ask me, though, I think it’s a little fraught. Measuring the teaching ability of a school by looking only at their most successful students allows us to forget that we don’t send our sons to school to ‘beat’ everyone else; we send them to learn things about the universe and to experience moments of truth and beauty. Perhaps I’m being really naïve.
Nevertheless, I’ve got an idea for a ranking system that I think would turn Australia’s school system on its head. I suspect I’m not the first person to have this idea, by the way, so don’t send me nasty emails if you think I’m plagiarising.
What about a system where, instead of measuring how much a student knows, we measure how much they’ve learnt? In other words, a rank based on growth rather than success? A ‘value-added’ list noting how much better at standardised testing a kid is in Year 12 than in Year 7? Would someone steal James Ruse’s mantle?
On reflection, this system would be corruptible, too. You could just make sure your students flunked their tests in Year 7 so that your Year 12 results looked more impressive. Teachers of junior classes could simply relax and put on their favourite film; the boys could do a year-long unit called ‘Twentieth-century Hollywood: a Journey across Genres.’
So where does this leave us? If every ranking system – from the HSC to the SMH to my fantasy growth-based model – is fraught with risk, why bother ranking at all? Our drive to compete may be behind it; capitalism is based on one-upmanship, after all. Or maybe the data really does help us make our students into better people.
Whatever you think, I must confess that writing that last sentence made me feel warm and fuzzy inside. I think I’m lucky to be working at a school where we take for granted how important the human side of education is. Perhaps there’s hope when we’re able to peer over the wall of the numbers cage and acknowledge the students sunning themselves within. Perhaps, if I’m allowed to stretch my tenuous zoo metaphor even further, these walls help form the boundaries we know boys need. Or perhaps my colleague was right: when it comes to determining a young man’s worth, an ATAR number is worth about as much as the length of his legs.