Educationists know that the quality of a school is not just determined by examination results, but also how well they give children a well-rounded education to help them meet challenges of life (economic, political, and social including culture, the arts, music and sports).
BUT doing well in examinations is the most important passport for the children of the lower classes to get out of poverty (even if a few school dropouts may succeed brilliantly in life).
Hence how well schools do in national examinations has always been of interest to students and their parents, and the schools themselves, even though no Fiji government has ever published comprehensive statistics on school performances.
Which is why the public should have been astonished at the recent press release by the Minister of Education (Dr Mahendra Reddy) and the Ministry of Education, as reported in The Fiji Times of 2 May 2015 giving the “pass rates” for “the top five best performing schools in Fiji” in the 1914 Year 12 exams.
The “Pass Rates” given
The statistics given showed that Queen Victoria School was first (with 96.9 per cent pass rate), Jai Narayan College was second (92.1 per cent.) , St Joseph’s Secondary was third (88.5 per cent); fourth was Labasa College (87.0 per cent), and fifth was Adi Cakobau School (81.5 per cent).
Of course, all these schools are good schools compared to others in Fiji, and the reported “pass rates” are no doubt also correct.
But do these statistics accurately rank the top schools by “academic performance”?
The FT news report obviously convinced one QVS Old Boy to write (Letter to Editor, FT 5 May 2015) that “Once again QVS has proven it is the top school in the country in terms of academic achievements. No wonder many parents want their sons to be educated at this prestigious school”.
While the Minister and the MoE correctly (or is it craftily?) told the media that these pass rates were not the only indicator of academic achievement, why did they choose to give the top five schools, only by this indicator, which I suggest below, is totally misleading in key respects.
“Pass Rates” or “Averages/Means”
The term “Lies, damned lies and statistics” is often humorously used by intelligent skeptics when so-called “experts” present statistics which do not correctly describe the “truth”.
While most scientists (economic, social, political, and the natural sciences) depend heavily on the use of statistics, good statisticians are always concerned about the deliberate misuse of selectively chosen statistics for alternative agenda.
Usually the motive is crass profits (as when some pharmaceutical firm presents dodgy “experimental results” to prove that some drug is safe in order to earns millions), but most often in every day life, the motive is political expediency.
The mathematics department of University of York (UK) has an interesting article on their webpage on the many possible origins of this phrase, as a warning to their students not to misuse statistics: http://www.york.ac.uk/depts/maths/histstat/lies.htm
The article also gives alternative phrases meaning the same thing: “fibs, lies and statistics” or “liars, damned liars, and expert witnesses” or “liars, outrageous liars, and scientific experts”.
It is a piteous sign of our times that no school principal or parent challenged Dr Reddy and the MoE on their press release and their dubious use of “pass rates” as an indicator of academic achievement.
Education assessment experts know that “pass rates” can be artificially increased, by deliberately choosing a low pass mark standard, which, if low enough, can give even a mediocre school a 100% pass rate, sometimes even higher than some genuinely excellent school.
Statisticians know that far more representative are the “average or mean marks” for schools which takes the full range of marks into account or sometimes better, are “median marks” (the middle score) which are not influenced by the extreme high or low individual results.
What average exam marks reveal
A previous Minister for Education gave me rare access to the complete national examination results for 2003 to 2007, for all students and all schools, by various levels.
For mathematics FSLC in 2007, the “top” five schools according to Dr Reddy and the MoE had average scores of 56, 60, 64, 71 and 75. Three of them were hardly in the same league as the other two.
You can imagine the distribution of marks around these average or mean marks around these means.
Even though some schools may have improved (and some worsened) since then, I doubt very much if the school relativities have changed much.
Going by averages or means, the top five schools between 2003 and 2007 usually included (in no particular order), Labasa College, Mahatma Gandhi HS, Natabua High School, Xavier College, and Yat Sen (even if some parents of students at these schools worry quite legitimately about their lack of involvement in arts, music and sports).
Other schools may have joined them at the top.
The statistics I am giving should be no surprise to knowledgeable educationists and school principals, or even Dr Reddy and the Ministry of Education, who have all this data at their finger-tips, right up to 2014.
So why did the Minister and the Ministry of Education choose to give only limited statistics on ‘pass rates’ which can and do mislead the public who are not familiar with education statistics?
The maritime students bungle
Was Dr Reddy’s press release merely political back-peddling after disturbing the hornets’ nest with his recent announcement, also without consultation, that maritime students, to improve heir academic performance, would be given preferential access to the allegedly “elite” QVS, RKS and ACS schools?
By now, he may have been forced to admit that QVS, RKS and ACS have enrolled students from all classes, including the poorest families, urban and rural.
These schools have also built up valuable historical traditions of enrolling successive generations from the same families, as of course have done other schools such as Marist, Grammar and Yat Sen (without any challenge from the MoE despite their breaking school zoning rules).
Dr Reddy may also have been convinced by the intelligent public that sending maritime students to these boarding schools on Viti Levu, may not be the best sustainable way to improve their academic performance.
So the mind boggles why he tried this bumbling strategy in the first place, although I suspect that his use of the word “elite” and the political agenda of his superiors, gives the game away. In the ‘new Fiji’ the Bainimarama Government has no place for traditional independent cultures (including that in education, which Bainimarama, Khaiyum and Dr Mahendra Reddy calls ‘elites’) that are capable of standing up to their propaganda and political machinations. The irony is that Bainimarama and many of his military colleagues have come up in the system via some of these very traditional cultures and schools, which are to be discarded now that they no longer have any use for them.
Need for consultation
While my current academic work unfortunately precludes me from writing my usual columns for The Fiji Times, I have made an exception here because I am deeply disturbed that our hitherto good education system, built up by mostly private education authorities with decades of hard work, continues to be destabilized and harmed by dictatorial MoE policy decisions, based on inadequate data and lack of understanding of the issues.
I have agreed with Dr Reddy in his reversal of the Bainimarama Government’s decision to end the national examinations, which I argued several years ago, and with many Letters to the Editor subsequently.
I have also agreed with Dr Reddy in his decision to end the scaling of marks: my data analysis showed years ago that such scaling differed from school to school by different percentages, artificially increased pass rates, and worst of all, hid any evidence there was of declining (or improving) standards in some subject areas. I had also pointed this out in a consultancy report for the Ministry of Education, through AusAID,
There is also much more advice given here (and in the appendices which are all on my blogsite: just search with the word “education”.
My advice to the Minister of Education (coming through The Fiji Times, and costing him nothing as opposed to the millions he pays to the donor-funded foreign consultants) is that he should be rethinking many other harmful MoE and Bainimarama Government policies.
(a) school zoning (which even the PS Education admits is not working)
(b) banning of independent fund-raising by schools
(c) the forced retirement age for teachers at age 55, losing experienced principals and teachers (but not applied to certain Government Ministers and their relatives).
(d) dictatorial appointment of school principals and teachers by the MoE
(e) imposition of an inappropriate simplistic formula to reward teachers and schools, based partly on their students’ exam results: another can of worms or Pandora’s Box that the Minister of Education insists on opening, as he revels in his incredibly high profile and public media exposure as the latest rising star in the Bainimarama Government.
The Minister might wish to first consult with school managements, principals and teachers associations, and the parents who tragically all continue their pathetic apathy to government measures which are destroying their children’s education.
Lastly, the public would be well advised that when the Minister of Education (or the government) craftily throw out a few selective education statistics, they should first ask if the numbers are “truthful” or whether they fall in the category “lies, damned lies, and statistics”.
[On the same day that this above article appeared in The Fiji Times, there was also another one written independently by Dr Ropate Qalo, ‘Ranking schools and improving students’ which can be read here:
Dr Qalo’s article was obviously in response to the same dismay I felt at the press release by the Minister of Education. Dr Qalo not only delves deeper into other issues that impact on student performance, such as school management and the importance of subject teachers, but also the dangers of forcing vulnerable young students into boarding schools, away from the safety and security of their homes as day students.]
By Ropate Qalo
Saturday, May 09, 2015
Many Fijians would congratulate the "Top Five in Fiji" article by Nasik Swami (The Fiji Times May 2, 2015). The front page article listed the Sixth Form or Year 12 examination results.
On the next page (2) in the same issue a second article is titled "Ministry reveals statistics" by the same journalist (ibid). This attempt to be transparent is marred by four paragraphs. Let me quote it for clarity and explain, this attempt to be more transparent.
It reads: "The percentage pass rate does not necessarily only determine the best school. There are different ways of interpreting the data in terms of identifying the best schools. For instance the schools that are producing quality pass rate in contrast to quantity, said the ministry. It said the differences among various schools were not because (or should read) of any innate differences in the ability of students. Rather they are the outcomes of other variables that are not always easy to identify. These variables that are not always easy to identify. These variables might have a direct or indirect impact on how the students perform in schools."
Let me take up five points:
1. Schools and students;
2. School management;
3. Subject teachers;
4. Homers relative to boarders; and
5. Exams as a diagnostic tool. More could be written on this topic.
Schools and students
It is not clear how schools are being ranked and the reference to any innate differences in the ability of students ie the comparison of the school as an institution and a student who is an individual.
This suggests that the ministry or journalist should clarify the point made. Simply because it shrouds the attempt to be transparent. It will not be difficult to list the variables in this attempt to be transparent. More so it will educate the public and the teachers the components that determines the best schools.
As such the students' performances in examinations is determined by the marks they score. There is confusion here between the student and the school in the report, in my view, and this must be cleared by the ministry.
This is a collective variable consisting of the management board and the principals in secondary schools. Its positive function gives good or bad results to schools and students, assuming proactive and robust subject teachers.
The key is the principal. I wish to share the words of the President of Fiji here in his speech to Ratu Sukuna Memorial School students in 2010. He said: "I cannot help but notice with concerned interest the disturbing salient feature of the high turnover of principals since 2005. Five principals in five years" (school magazine 2010). As a result besides other variables the lack of space while the huge building was being built impacted on students' performances as well as the school ranking.
At the time the ministry determined who was or is to become principal. The school lost a principal this year whom the school wanted to remain but was retired. The replacement is going to retire in October 2015 according to the president of the PTA.
Now in the light or darkness of the above one cannot help but question the role of weak performing schools. Checking with my former secondary school I found that the sixth form did not do well at 46 per cent. However, the seventh form scored 73 per cent which should place it as 8th. The fact it was not placed at all is more than interesting and mars the attempt of the ministry to be transparent.
This is a very important variable regarding the performance of students. Again it is the posting by the ministry and the choice of teachers with regards to their strengths in the disciplines they teach. Coupled with these teachers are those who are given positions of responsibilities must have strong background eg vice principals, assistant principals, heads of department etc.
Homers relative to boarders
Debates between which of the two is better is continuing. Three major reasons against boarding schools are:
* It is inadvisable to send a child to boarding school if it becomes obvious that he/she will have to repeat a year. In order to move forward to the next class, students must demonstrate the ability to study independently, show good work performance and pass their exams.
* Boarding school should not be seen as a punitive measure for inappropriate behaviour or unsatisfactory study performance. Children who are rejected by their families and sent to a boarding school close themselves off from relationships with peers and teachers, which is not beneficial for either side.
* Boarding school is not recommended for children who are strongly attached to their families. There is a danger that through loneliness they may become frustrated and socially isolated (http://www.boarding-school-finder.com/en/articles/criteria-/pro-and-contra).
The positive side of boarding schools is numerous and well understood apart from the fact that it is more expensive in relative terms.
Professor Wadan Narsey wrote in 'National examinations: you don't know what you have got till it is gone': "For decades, the examinations statistics have shown (rarely publicised) that school children in rural schools have a much higher failure rate than children in urban schools.
"Good teachers tend not to go to rural schools which are usually severely handicapped in terms of resources such as libraries and laboratories.
"Rural school management and principals often have problems keeping teachers to tight discipline, with kava abuse increasing in recent years.
"Moreover, rural children suffer from a whole host of disadvantages which urban children do not; walking long distances to and from school, lack of electricity at home, poor nutrition, use of school time for non-academic duties, to mention just a few."
Exams as a diagnostic tool
By 2010 the ministry toyed with the idea of doing away with national exams. Prof Narsey wrote at length to argue against the idea. The ministry is to be congratulated for bringing them back because tertiary institutions do rely on examinations.
Prof Narsey wrote (ibid.): "The Ministry of Education can rightly be proud of the extremely efficient examinations processing capacity that has been built up over forty years at many levels, ranging from primary school (years 6 and 8) to secondary school (Fiji Junior, FSLC and Form Seven).
"Examination papers are set reasonably well, moderated, and implemented throughout the country.
"Hundreds of thousands of examination papers are marked, and the results processed and analysed by computer software, within a short span of time. Nearly always, the results are released well in time for them to be used by schools throughout Fiji.
"Achieving all this is a massive exercise, but quite successfully done, year after year.
"And the Ministry of Education has managed to build up the required skilled human resource capacity at their headquarters, despite salary levels which are not as attractive as those offered by regional CROP organisations for comparable skills.
"All this human resource capacity is in danger of being needlessly dissipated if the national examinations are steadily phased out as is currently envisaged."
In conclusion thank goodness examinations have been retained over the debates over the last five years. It will indeed keep check on standards for tomorrow's human resources. As it is often stated that "education is everybody's business" and the attempt of being transparent by the ministry will indeed make education everyone's business.