Don’t be MEAN

I hate when people are MEAN. I don’t mean grumpy, irritable, or rude (although this is all bothersome too). I don’t like when people are MEAN, as in the average, like told they are normal or asked to perform at a level just like everyone else. In statistics the average is typically calculated one of three ways: using the mode (or the most frequent), the median (the middle), or the mean (the sum divided by the quantity). In most schools we sort and select kids by use of the mean. We determine grades by the mean. We determine who is “advanced” and who is “at-risk” by looking at the mean, and to be quite frank, this is MEAN.

Let me use a few examples to illustrate why the mean does not work in schools, even though it is used almost everywhere (don’t ever assume that just because something is popular that it equates to being right- Bell bottoms were extremely popular a generation ago, after all).

Lets assume that this marking period you have a set of triplets in your class. The kids look identical but are each extremely unique. This marking period you had a total of six assignments that you gave to your students. Below are the scores earned by each of the triplets.

Student A- 62%, 62%, 62%, 62%, 62%, 62%

Each time he was given an assessment or an assignment (for sake of this conversation we will use those terms interchangeably- go read the posts Spiraling to assess learning and Forget the label for more clarity). As a result, at the end of the marking period, he earns an aggregate grade of…..62%. In most schools this is translated again to a D or a D-

Student B- 95%, 82%, 75%, 55%, 47%, 18%

Each time he was given an assessment his scores declined. He began earning grades that most would describe as an A, but ended the term with grades some could label as an F. Using the same calculation method we used for student A, do you know what this student’s final grade would be? No need to calculate it. I’ll tell you….62%

Now let’s look at Student C- 18%, 47%, 55%, 75%, 82%, 95%

Each time he was given an assessment his store improved. His grades are the exact opposite of Student B. He started off earning failing grades but eventually found himself earning an A, and you guessed it, his final grade is 62%.


Now imagine you are the parent of these three amazing kids. They each come home with a 62% at the end of the marking period, or perhaps it is labeled as  D- on their reports cards. Does that grade tell you the entire story for each of them? Are you disappointed with all of them or do you celebrate they each at least passed? If these were my children I would have A LOT of questions.

1.Did each assessment you took this marking period measure your understanding of the same content, skills, and standards? If so…

a) Why did student A not demonstrate any improvement? Why did student B have to keep getting assessed after he showed mastery early on? Why does student C have the same final grade if he is now showing mastery after receiving what was apparently quality teaching and guidance for 6 weeks?

2.  Did each assessment measure understanding of different content and skills? If so…

a) Student A obviously struggled with all of the content and skills. Was this an issue with how he was being assessed or is it a problem with his understanding? Student B showed that he had a solid understanding of content early on, but struggled later? Did the delivery of instruction change or was the content scaffolded in a way as to create prerequisites which would simply cause a deeper chasm of confusion as time went on, and conversely how was student C able to show mastery later in the term if he struggled early on?

You see, when we use the MEAN, we are being cruel because we do not have answers to what really matters. It’s like drawing a conclusion about a person by only looking at how they dress or how they talk. It’s judging a book by its cover. When we use the MEAN, sure we can calculate a final score, but it’s a score that doesn’t tell us much. It’s a score that brings about more questions than answers.

So what do we do differently? I am so glad you asked….

It starts by looking for patterns of evidence, revolves around understating that learning is a process not a “got it”, “don’t got it” phenomenon, and ends with using every assessment as an opportunity to grow and learn. There are actually simply strategies you can do in your classroom to address this. Come back next week and I’ll share all about them.

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