Monday, January 30, 2006

On private schools and standardised tests

This post discusses recent research in the US, which implies that private schools are actually worse (as measured by a standardised maths test administered to 11 year olds) than public (i.e. state) schools after correcting for the fact that private school students are richer, more intelligent, and come from happier homes.

Actually, I'm not surprised. I went to a private school which did very well in the A-level league tables. Everyone there was quite open about the fact that this was entirely due to the selective intake. We didn't actually try to maximise A-level scores. For example, the school offered Economics A-level instead of Business Studies (which is an easier subject and marked more leniently, something top universities overcorrect for by binning any UCAS form with it on). State schools which play the league table game do not offer Economics because an A in Business Studies is as about as hard to get as a B in Economics, but worth more league table points.

Parents send their children to private school to get them into top univesities. Therefore private schools focus on cramming for top unversities' selection processes, which give a lot of weight to things like extra-curiccular activities which state schools downplay because they aren't worth league table points. American public schools have their performance measured on the basis of standardised tests, which aren't particularly correlated with what top universities are looking for. You teach to the test, you get better results. You teach to the entrance exam, your alumni get into HarvOxYaleBridge.

Another point is that most private schools featured in the study are religious schools. The main mission of religious schools is religious indoctrination, not education. So it isn't exactly a damning indictment that they do badly on standardised tests.

Finally, there is the issue of actual education - the imparting of useful knowledge, life skills, character etc. This is a very low priority at state and private schools, but private schools are more likely to devote some resources to it. Actual learning, as opposed to bamboozling test-setters or admissions tutors, cannot be pinned down by statistics, but is immediately obvious to anyone who cares to look for it. So top private schools provide genuine education to satisfy the minority of parents who want it. State schools are accountable to politicians, who go by the statistics, and so don't need to.

I am who I am because of opportunities I had which I would not have been offered at a state school. None of them affected my exam grades. They were still worth the money.

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