It's the time of year when international schools all over the world start publishing their results from the 2016-2017 examination season, and broadcasting these far and wide.
Our Malaysian international schools are no different - we are seeing results flashed on Facebook, tweeted on Twitter, and proudly paraded across the front page of newsletters and websites.
However - and as many parents know - these statistics are only a small part of the story. As an anonymous wit once quipped, "There are three types of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics".
Now, we aren't saying our international schools are liars - far from it! But there is certainly a need to consider exam results with a critical and quizzical eye. There are several questions as need to ask ourselves, particularly when trying to compare schools' results. Here are the three biggies....
Firstly: how were these statistics calculated?
The standard procedure is for schools to count the total number of grades awarded: for example, 100 students x 10 IGCSE grades each = 1000 total grades. They then work out how many of those were, say, A or A* to turn that into a percentage (let's say there were 450 A or A* grades; that means the school could state their cohort had achieved 45% A-A*s).
However, there are a couple of things to consider here.
For one, some international schools don't include some students' grades. This is a bit dodgy, but some schools do not include the grades from their worst performing candidates - in order to improve their statistics & grade averages - for various reasons (like the students have left the school, so are no longer considered part of the student body...)
If a student is at real risk of significantly underachieving, some schools will make them enter their examinations as a 'private candidate', rather than through the school. This means they do not have to include their grades when calculating their cohort's results.
A number of schools also won't include the performance of any students who take their examinations early (for example, a Year 10 student sitting their IGCSE examinations a year in advance, or a gifted Year 12 student sitting some A2 examinations)
Our advice here would be to ask the school, if you are seriously considering enrolling your child there, whether their statistics include every student entered for the examination series. You should expect a clear, fair and well-reasoned answer.
Secondly: How big was the cohort?
You could have a cohort of only ten students in a small sixth form, half of whom get As. You could then proudly declare that "50% of our A Level students got As". That, as I'm sure parents would appreciate, is an entirely different feat to a school which has a cohort of 250 students achieving 50% A grades (maintaining a consistently high quality of teaching and learning across a large cohort, in order to achieve results like that, is a significant challenge).
Not many international schools publicly state their cohort size, which we think is a shame - but Alice Smith did this year (thanks guys!) and hopefully a few more Malaysian schools will follow suit.
Thirdly: was the examination cohort mixed ability, or does the school have selective entry?
There is a profound difference between a school achieving 50% A grades with a non selective cohort, and a school achieving 50% A grades with in school with selective entry. The former statistic is hugely impressive. The latter is not. If you only admit students with target grades of A/A*, then of course they should then go on to achieve these grades - it should be a given. Just comparing statistics isn't fair; it's not comparing like with like. What we need to be clear on is how much value each school is adding to their students. We explain this in much more depth in our post about value-added data.
Now, we appreciate that some Malaysian international schools (such as Marlborough College) openly declare that they are non-selective; this is important information for parents (and surely makes their results even more impressive!) We hope that more schools will follow suit and be a bit more transparent when announcing their results. It's worth pointing out that some 'top tier' schools, such as Garden International & Alice Smith are proudly non-selective, yet strangely don't trumpet this fact when announcing their hugely impressive examination results (You can read more about the GIS results here & the Alice Smith results here).
Finally, how do the results compare with those from previous years?
Schools always have this data, and some share it openly. But if they don't, we should ask for it. It's important to be aware of general trends within a school - particularly if results have decreased, year on year.
Overall, our main message is this: statistics only tell part of the story. As a parent, make sure you are looking at these results with a critical eye and asking some of the questions we've outlined in this post.
A good international school should be more than happy to answer these questions for you, and it is well within your rights to ask!
Do you have any questions about how examination results are calculated, or about the results of any international school in Malaysia? Email us and we'll look into it for you.