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Critics believe the rankings rely too heavily on Foundation Skills Assessment scores, and fail to look at student engagement in arts or athletics.

DARRYL DYCK/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

The Fraser Institute's annual report card on B.C. schools is often criticized by public-education advocates for being biased toward private institutions – but even heads of those highly ranked independent schools question the list's validity.

In the 2015 report card, released Thursday, 28 of the province's top 30 secondary schools were private. Critics say the rankings rely too heavily on Foundation Skills Assessment (FSA) scores and fail to factor in a host of variables, including family income, students with learning disabilities and individual student experiences. Nor do the tests look at student engagement in arts or athletics.

The BC Teachers' Federation has said the rankings place exaggerated importance on the FSA tests – a snapshot of literacy and numeracy skills – and has asked teachers to exempt their children from taking the tests.

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Despite the criticism, the Fraser Institute says the report cards are widely read every year, with last year's report card receiving about 335,700 unique views online.

But while complaints from the schools at the bottom of the list may be expected, even those at the top are skeptical.

"Of course, it always feels good to be ranked No. 1," said Chantal Gionet, head of school for York House School, which tied for first out of 289 with Little Flower Academy.

"Academics are a priority at York House School, but we are also very much about educating the whole girl and igniting her passion for lifelong learning, whether it be in fine arts, athletics, community service or leadership. This is something that these rankings simply don't capture."

Patricia Dawson, head of school for Crofton House School, a private, university-prepatory school for girls that tied with West Point Grey Academy for fourth place, said the rankings reflect only "a small portion of what [schools] do."

"We struggle with the rankings. We greatly appreciate that the public at large, and certainly a broader parent community, looks at those rankings and puts a lot of stock in them. We do not," Dr. Dawson said.

"I've worked in public as well as independent [schools], and in public I'm always concerned when I see those rankings. Outstanding teachers, working as hard as you possibly can with those students – what is the impact of those rankings?"

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Tam Matthews, head of school for West Point Grey Academy, shares that sentiment.

"We think it's really difficult to gauge the student learning through external testing," Mr. Matthews said. "We believe in the education serving the whole child. We understand that these [rankings] go on, but I think more important is for every student and parent to be choosing a school that really meets their needs. They need to visit the school and meet the teachers."

Charles Ungerleider, a former deputy minister of education and a professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia, said the rankings "destabilize a relationship between a community and its schools." He encouraged parents to visit schools and speak with teachers because there are several factors that make a school successful for a child.

Peter Cowley, director of school performance studies at the Fraser Institute, said such measures are needed to assess schools – that the report cards provide valuable information to parents.

"The same people who criticize the report card being focused only on academics are the same people who – if they chose to, if they had the will to – would be able to design indicators of other aspects of education, develop data sets and provide them to the public," Mr. Cowley said. "But they don't."

Lower-ranking schools, Mr. Cowley said, should work to improve their own rankings rather than blaming factors such as family income, the number of special-needs students or parent participation.

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"Is there any school in Canada serving kids of the same general characteristics, in terms of personal and family characteristics, that does better than you do? If there is, you've got motivation."

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