The End of Average: Why Graded Is on the Right Track
Posted 03/26/2018 03:18PM

I recently finished a most profound read entitled The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness by Todd Rose, Faculty Director of Mind, Brain, and Education at Harvard University.  Alan November, Keynote Speaker at Graded’s iNNOVATE 2017 Conference recommended it to me.  

In his work, Rose states that averages exist everywhere.  Averaging can be helpful for an airline to determine an estimated flight time or for a grocery store to approximate how much milk to purchase each week.  However, when it comes to students and learning, an “average” falls short.

The practice of averaging a student’s results over time was influenced by Frederick Taylor’s theory on efficiencies and systems in labor productivity. In the early part of the 20th century, Taylor, often referred to as the first management consultant, introduced the idea of standardizing work in factories to maximize efficiency. This notion required workers to conform to an average series of actions.

The philosophy was later adopted by schools and continues to impact classroom structure today. Executing this practice, a teacher delivers to learners at the midpoint, meeting the efficiency need. However, students at both ends of the learning spectrum miss out.  By focusing on personalized learning, we are aiming to meet each students unique learning needs.

What we are finding in recent research, and what is confirmed by Rose, is that this focus on “sameness,” to ensure maximum efficiency, is detrimental to learning.  Let’s take reading, for example. The "sameness" philosophy and a Tayloristic focus suggest that every child learns at exactly the same moment.

Simultaneous skill acquisition would be easy and efficient for the teacher, but humans do not process information at the same pace. Students don’t learn to read on the same day or even in the same week.  There is little or no correlation as to when a child learns how to read and their long-term achievement or future success. We watch reading develop over time, as a student’s ability and comprehension improves.

This individualized pace and process of learning is central to Graded's belief that a grade should not equal the sum of a student’s results divided by a denominator. This average simply does not reflect an individual's longitudinal learning trajectory.  It also assumes that all children learn identically and simultaneously. We know that this is not true.

Similarly, when grades are used to rank students, the method falls short as a valid measure.  In fact, in the End of Average, Rose addresses Ergodic theory and states that one can only use a group average to make predictions about individuals if two conditions are true: 1.  Every member of the group is identical and 2. Every member of the group will remain the same.  

What is more important, and the focus of our grading reform efforts, is assessing the individual. In 2015, Graded discontinued averaging students’ grades to determine an overall final grade.  Our decision to reform our middle and high school grading practices was influenced by the groundbreaking content of Ken O’Connor’s Repair Kit for Grading: 15 Fixes for Broken Grades and supported further by Rose’s The End of Average.

Setting measures of growth for each student that are reflective of their abilities and their desired outcomes is our goal. In fact, it drives each student toward our Vision as a school: Individuals empowered to reach their potential and positively impact the world.  

Currently, our faculty are working with leading assessment specialists.  Together, they are developing and implementing evaluative methods that provide feedback students and deliver evidence of longitudinal growth.

Graded is also not alone in our efforts to move from averages.  At Brown University, for example, the institution does not average grades, nor does it report a GPA.  Many other prestigious K-12 institutions and medical schools have adopted these same assessment practices.

We welcome you to learn more and ask questions. If you are interested, stop by and join me in conversation.

Richard Boerner

“If someone proposed combining measures of height, weight, diet and exercise into a single number to represent a person’s physical condition, we would consider it laughable….Yet every day teachers combine aspects of student’s achievement, attitude, responsibility, effort, and behavior into a single grade that’s recorded on a report card and no one questions it.” - Thomas R. Guskey, Five Obstacles to Grading Reform


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