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Brendan Lim (R) who is a first year science student, along with roommate Graham Fonseca (L) study for a physics test in their dorm room at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, British Columbia, Sunday, April 22, 2012.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Think the school you chose for your child is good? Better than that academic straggler just down the road?

Think again.

A new study is raising questions about the information parents commonly use to chose a school for their children, especially in provinces like Alberta and British Columbia, where families commonly shop around for an education.

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The authors looked at the academic performance of more than 4,500 students in a first-year physics class at the University of British Columbia between 2002 and 2006. They found that those who had graduated from public schools in the Metro Vancouver area outperformed their peers arriving from private schools and school districts in more remote parts of the province.

The findings, which were published last week in the International Journal of Science Education, contradict some commonly held beliefs, including that independent schools give students an academic head start while those in low-income urban schools fall behind.

Within the Vancouver School Board, for example, schools on the east side of the city outperformed those in the west. Average household income is higher on the west side ($65,700 a year, compared with the east side's $43,800), and schools there are widely regarded as academically superior by Vancouver parents, so much so that thousands of students commute across the district to attend schools in the west.

"There's a popular opinion [in Vancouver]that the west side is better than the east side and the independent schools are better than both," said George Bluman, a professor of mathematics at UBC, and one of the authors. "Popular opinion is probably wrong."

Prof. Bluman suggests a larger proportion of immigrant families gave the east end a boost. His theory is supported by standardized testing which has found that immigrant students, especially those of Southeast Asian descent, outperform their native-born peers.

The results also put urban schools in Vancouver very slightly ahead of those in the suburbs, and even further ahead of schools in outlying areas. Prof. Bluman believes this could be attributable to a shortage of teachers with math and science expertise in more sparsely populated regions.

Elizabeth deVries, an elementary-school teacher and mother of three who lives in Kamloops, finds that assertion problematic. She feels it's more likely students from Metro Vancouver have an advantage over their peers who are away from home for the first time, and who often work a part-time job to cover the cost of housing.

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"That experience is totally different from a kid who is living at home and going to school," she said.

The study contradicted some of the findings of the Fraser Institute's annual school rankings in concluding that students who graduated from public schools outperform those from independent schools.

That surprised Brendan Lim, an 18-year-old first-year sciences student at UBC who will write his Physics 101 final exam Monday. He feels the education he got at Vancouver College, an all-boys independent school, gave him a strong foundation in math and sciences.

He acknowledged, however, that independent school students coming from single-sex and low student-to-teacher ratio classrooms may be in for a bigger culture shock than their publicly educated peers.

"At university it's a lot more independent, a lot more about self-motivation," he said.

Although the study's rankings and those of the Fraser Institute don't match up, both Prof. Bluman and Peter Cowley, an education policy expert at the Fraser Institute, said this points to a need for more rankings and evaluation in Canadian education.

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"Let's have school compete with each for effectiveness," Mr. Cowley said. "It's too important to say we don't want to evaluate schools."

While competitive rankings of schools are relatively common in the United States, the Fraser Institute is the only group in Canada to do school-by-school comparisons on a large scale.

Last year's school report cards were downloaded by 1.25 million people – an impressive number given that there are only about four million families with school-aged children in Canada.

But many inside the education system say these rankings are problematic, and misleading to parents.

"To know what a school is like you have to go into the school … You really need to get the full feeling of the culture of the school," Ms. deVries said. "Who's to say that one school is better than another?"

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