Dr Helen Street
Laura, a friend and fellow parent, recently told me about her encounter with ‘the fear of being average’. This friend, like myself, is a mother of three daughters. She had become concerned that her youngest daughter, eight year old Abbie was unmotivated to read. Abbie seemed slow to improve in her ability to read and even slower in her willingness to ‘practice’. Laura was unsure if there was a specific problem creating her daughters lack of enthusiasm, or possibly, a more psychological issue at bay. Consequently, Laura took Abbie to be assessed by a recommended child psychologist. After much consultation Laura was invited along for the all important feedback session. She told me how her jaw dropped as the psychologist told her that she was “sorry to say that Abbie did not have a particular learning issue and was in fact average in her academic abilities”.
Laura was dismayed. Not at the idea of having such a thing as ‘an average child’; after all she was relieved that Abbie did not have a specific problem that needed addressing. Rather Laura was totally taken aback that this summation of her daughter’s normality came complete with an apology.
It seems to me that the more we assess and reassess our children, the more many parents have confused ideas of ‘wanting the best for their children’, with ideas that they must ‘be the best’ if they are to have any chance of success in life. Despite the fact that 95% of children are average in their academic achievements (by definition!), average is somehow starting to sound like a disappointing second best.
There are many reasons why this attitude is gaining so much hold among Australian parents. Among these reasons is the changing meaning behind much of the language we use to interpret student assessments. For example, previously neutral words like ‘average’ and ‘ordinary’ are increasingly used to mean ‘less than acceptable’ (For example, ‘I feel a bit ordinary’ is a term that now implies ‘I feel unwell’).
The powerful connotations associated with much of modern language used to describe children in education needs challenging and changing. If we call a high performing child ‘gifted’ we are arguably minimalizing the unique qualities of all ‘non-gifted’ children. This gives rise to a powerful desire for parents to have their own children acknowledged as part of the ‘gifted community’. An outcome that cannot be possible unless of course, being gifted is the new average…
Rather than referring to a child as ‘average’ perhaps it is time we used more helpful terms such as ‘healthy’ or ‘normal’. How much better to hear that your child has achieved a healthy academic outcome than to hear they have average ability. Similarly, how much more satisfactory for a school community to hear that while only a few children are ‘high academic achievers’, all are gifted or special in some capacity.
Language is never a constant. It changes in line with changing beliefs and attitudes and with changing generations.
A second major consideration is the frequent misuse and misinterpretation of assessment data. This also certainly contributes to our concern for anyone not achieving high marks.
NAPLAN is a great example of an assessment process raising such concerns. As an ideal, NAPLAN has the potential to provide valuable data about both individuals and groups of students. It provides a measure of achievement in terms of a child’s ability to pass the NAPLAN assessments – and this provides information about a child’s literacy and numeracy skills at a fixed point in time. It also provides information about the overall ability of classes of children, entire schools and also entire geographic regions. As such, when used wisely NAPLAN data can be used as a basis to strengthen teaching that is working well and to address areas of weakness.
The problems of NAPLAN become evident in consideration of unrealistic or inappropriate interpretations of the data. This in turn can lead to inaccurate or misplaced judgments being made about both individual and group abilities.
A school who boasts a high overall NAPLAN score is not necessarily performing better than a school with a low overall NAPLAN score. For example, a school working with children of a wide range of abilities cannot effectively be compared to a school that focuses on teaching the children of highly educated parents. Schools need to be compared to other schools of similar demographics. In my experience some of the best teaching occurs in the most disadvantaged classrooms.
It is also important that we realize that it is not possible to look at the progress a school is making in terms of year to year changes in results. As Professor Helen Wildy (Dean of Education at UWA) recently said, progress can only be realistically assessed across ten years of assessment. It is meaningless to look at changes from year to year. Moreover, we can only realistically interpret changing scores when all other variables are considered.
In terms of individual performance, it is important to acknowledge that a student’s progress needs to be assessed with a mix of formal assessments and in class observations. Formal assessments such as NAPLAN provide valuable data but, only as part of the bigger picture. Teachers and parents need to be mindful of using assessment data to guide them to help students to progress at school, not as an absolute measure of ability.
Even more pressing is the need to guide parents’ interpretations of assessment data in relation to their desire to have high performing children. It is not possible for every child to achieve exceptional academic outcomes. However, it is theoretically possible for every child to progress to outcomes that reflect the best of their abilities.
Ultimately it is perhaps best to consider that while nationwide assessments have the potential to offer valuable information; this information is only useful if interpreted in a meaningful and accurate way.
It is also vital to disseminate information gathered with both the use of appropriate language and an understanding that being ‘normal’ really can be a good way to be.
Dr Helen Street is an applied social psychologist with a passion for wellbeing in education. She presents seminars and workshops for schools. Helen is also chair of The Positive Schools Conferences (www.positiveschools.com.au)