Average for whom: That’s the Question

So your son obtains scores in the “average” range on a group-administered, commercial achievement test (think Iowa’s or Stanford’s). You look at his charts accompanying your son’s score report and your eyes blur a bit, what with all the dotted lines, graphs, numbers and terms like percentile or standard score. But you do see that his score is visually in the middle of one of the graphs and that it has been described as “average” by whoever (or whatever) scored the test.

Your next question should be “So what”. Lamentably, the answer to that question is not at all easy to answer. A basic answer would be, “It depends”.

If your son is attending a public school, you can infer that in his class, he is NOT atypical, abnormal.

But suppose that public school is located in a more affluent school district. In this setting, his “average” score nationally speaking may be “below average” relative to his classmates. Students in more affluent  communities are much more likely to be brighter because their parents are more often well-educated, more invested in their children and more involved in their child’s education. So, in this more selective school, the “average” achievement level FOR THE SCHOOL is “above -average” for the national population. His 75th percentile (above-average) score may well be at the 50th (average) FOR HIS SCHOOL (just as a 6’2″ basketball player may be at the 50th percentile for his team BUT the 75th percentile compared to the national population).

It gets worse. If your son is attending an independent school, the “average” achievement level can be the 90th percentile (superior). So his “average” achievement score at the 50th percentile turns out to be “below-average” (<25th percentile) for the independent school. Indeed, his average skill levels put him at a real DISadvantage in an independent school setting. Many, many times I have advised parents to choose less competitive settings so the needless stresses of unrelenting achievement pressures and the mediocre grades that even this child’s BEST efforts produce do not poison  his sense of competence.

Interestingly, since the “average” student in an independent school  population is a “superior” student relative to the national population, the independent school student – after spending his elementary-school years there – comes to think of himself as “just average”.  I’ve heard many a very bright (90th percentile ) independent school student describe himself that way. He hugely underestimates his competence and potentials.

And so we see again, especially in view of what I’ve said in previous postings, the word “average” becoming a “weasel” word, a nonsense term that is best ignored in favor of more meaningful terminolgy. I will address the issue of meaningfulness in testing in future posts.


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