Open enrolment policies raise test scores, report says

In All, News by Linda Givetash

This piece was also featured on The Globe and Mail

A policy change that gave parents greater choice in where to enroll their children encouraged B.C. schools to “up their game” and improved students’ test results, a new report says.

The report, being released by the C.D. Howe Institute on Thursday, looked at the effects of the province’s 2002 policy change that lifted geographic restrictions on public schools.

In neighbourhoods with many schools, the report found student test scores increased by one to three percentage points – the same effect that reducing class sizes by one to three students would have.

Students improved because schools were forced to get better to maintain enrolment, explained Jane Friesen, economics professor at Simon Fraser University and lead author of the report.

“When parents are able to vote with their feet, principals and … teachers become more directly aware of what their constituency sees in the value of what they’re providing,” Dr. Friesen said.

The report analyzed Grade 4 Foundation Skills Assessment scores across schools in the Lower Mainland. Students in the most densely populated neighbourhoods showed the greatest gains in marks.

Reading and numeracy scores were found to have increased on average by one to three percentage points after open enrolment was implemented, the report states.

Although the increase in grades is “modest,” Dr. Friesen said it suggests open enrolment is a good policy for governments.

“Reducing class size is costly … whereas a policy like open enrolment … appears to have the same effect without additional resources.”

Better grades didn’t come at the price of diversity in schools. Rather, ethnic and cultural diversity at schools remained consistent after open enrolment, Dr. Friesen said.

While more options are welcome, increased competition between schools can cause anxiety for some parents, said Claudia Ferris, spokesperson for the Vancouver District Parent Advisory Council.

Ms. Ferris said she was apprehensive of open enrolment policies that came into place when her two children were starting school. At the time, she was concerned it would allow for more applicants to a popular French immersion program in her east-side neighbourhood, making it harder for her children to get in.

But both her children did get into the schools they wanted. Now, with one child in university and the other in secondary school, Ms. Ferris said she thinks the policies work.

“I had the option to choose whatever kept my kids engaged,” Ms. Ferris said.

Ms. Ferris is not alone in seeking different options within the public system.

Many parents want more choices for where to send their children to school, explained Ayesha Haider, second vice-president of the B.C. Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils.

“It’s about creating more opportunities targeted to students with different interests and different abilities, not just based on what area they live in or what income threshold they belong to,” Ms. Haider said.

Specialty programs alone aren’t the reason students on average performed better with open enrolment, according to Dr. Friesen.

Her report found that students who stayed at their neighbourhood schools also reaped the benefits of the open enrolment policy.

“If there is more diversity in programming, that gives parents more of a reason to want to move and that puts more pressure on a local school to give them a good-quality educational experience,” Dr. Friesen said.

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Linda Givetash

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Linda Givetash is a Canadian-South African freelance journalist based in Vancouver, B.C. Her work has appeared in print, digital and broadcast media outlets around the globe.