Research briefings

B.C. students leave schools when test scores bring 'bad news'

13th January 2010: The publication of school-level test scores in British Columbia has been highly controversial.  But did its introduction tell parents anything they didn’t already know?  If so, did this information actually change parents’ decisions about where their children attend school?

A new study from SFU’s Centre for Education Research and Policy shows that grade 4 students in B.C.’s Lower Mainland public schools became more likely to leave their school when published Foundation Skills Assessment results showed that it scored poorly relative to public schools serving similar students.

Families living in low-income neighborhoods were most likely to respond to school test score information, and did so as soon as the Ministry began releasing school test scores in 2000.

For example, in the least affluent 25 per cent of Lower Mainland neighbourhoods, schools that received news that their school’s average test scores were one standard deviation lower than at schools serving similar students - meaning fewer than one in five schools received worse news - saw their exit rates increase by 18 per cent. For a typical low-income school with 50 grade 4 students, this would mean that the number of grade 4 students leaving in that year would increase from five students to six.

In high-income neighbourhoods, only families who do not speak English at home responded to new information about their school’s average test scores. English-speaking families in high-income neighbourhoods showed no systematic pattern of leaving schools that received bad news about FSA scores.

Non-English-speaking families did not respond to the first sets of school test scores published by the Ministry, but did react strongly to subsequent publications by the Fraser Institute, regardless of neighborhood income level. This response was particularly clear among Chinese-speakers, who increased their exit rate by about 25 per cent when they received very bad news from the Fraser Institute.

“This research shows that public information about school-level achievement has the power to affect behavior in ways that may have real consequences for educational outcomes,” noted CERP Director Dr Jane Friesen.

Inclusion of special education students doesn’t affect classmates’ education

9th December 2009: In British Columbia, students with special educational needs typically learn in the same classrooms as other students. This inclusion policy may sometimes arouse concern that other students could see their education negatively affected.

In a new study, the Centre for Education Research and Policy at Simon Fraser University compared the achievement of successive cohorts of students within every public elementary school (as measured by the change in individual Foundation Skills Assessment scores between grades 4 and 7), for cohorts entering grade 7 between 2002 and 2004. CERP’s researchers then measured the effect of having more or fewer classmates with disabilities.

The results show that increasing the proportion of students with special educational needs has only extremely small and statistically insignificant effects on the achievement of other students.

“This research provides credible evidence that, whatever B.C.’s teachers are doing to support students with disabilities and their classmates, it is successful in ensuring that there are no detrimental side-effects of the inclusion policy”, said co-author Dr. Brian Krauth.

Allaying concerns about peer effects among Aboriginal students

18th November 2009: A new study from Simon Fraser University shows that attending school with more Aboriginal students does not harm the achievement of Aboriginal students.

A widely-reported C.D. Howe Institute study recently claimed that Aboriginal education outcomes are poorer when a school's concentration of Aboriginal students is higher. The study relied on comparisons of the average achievement of Aboriginal students, between schools with different proportions of Aboriginal students. This method "fails to fully account for the effects of many other differences between schools," says Jane Friesen, Director of SFU's Centre for Education Research and Policy. "Its findings should therefore be treated with great caution."

New research conducted by Dr. Friesen's team measures peer effects using the random, year-to-year changes in the concentration of Aboriginal students within British Columbia elementary schools. Comparison of successive cohorts in the same school is not biased by the selectivity that compromises comparisons between different schools.

These small changes are shown to have no negative effect on the achievement of Aboriginal students, as measured by the change in their test scores between grades 4 and 7. If anything, there may be a slight positive effect.

It remains possible that larger variations across schools could be having a beneficial or harmful effect. Outcomes might change when the Aboriginal share of a school population reaches some 'critical mass'. However, there is currently no reliable evidence that this is the case.

Supplementary funding policy raises literacy skills of B.C.'s Aboriginal students

9th September 2009: BC government funding to support students who speak a non-standard English dialect has delivered measurable improvements in the reading skills of Aboriginal students.

Researchers at SFU's Centre for Education Research and Policy (CERP) analyzed reading test score gains of BC Grade 7 students. The more students a school district designated for provincial English as a Second Dialect (ESD) funding support, the more the scores of the average Aboriginal student improved.

In a district receiving funding for 22% of its Aboriginal students (the average ESD designation rate in the period studied), the improvement was equivalent to narrowing the reading achievement gap with non-Aboriginal students by 18%.

Jane Friesen, principal researcher and director of CERP, said: “This provincial funding policy has made a substantial, measurable contribution to closing the reading skills gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students. These results demonstrate the importance of sustained funding for classroom instruction."

The proportion of Aboriginal students in B.C. public schools who were designated for ESD supplementary funding tripled between 1999 and 2004, the period studied.