Standards, Grades And Tests Are Wildly Outdated, Argues ‘End Of Average’

Feb 17, 2016

Photo credit: LA Johnson/NPR

By Anya Kamenetz

Todd Rose dropped out of high school with D- grades. At 21, he was trying to support a wife and two sons on welfare and minimum wage jobs.

Today he teaches educational neuroscience at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He’s also the co-founder of The Center for Individual Opportunity, a new organization devoted to “the science of the individual and its implications for education, the workforce, and society.”

In other words, Todd Rose is not your average guy. But neither are you.

In fact, he argues, absolutely no one is precisely average. And that’s a big problem, he tells NPR Ed: “We’ve come to embrace a way of thinking about ourselves as people that was intentionally designed to ignore all individuality and force everything in reference to an average person.”

Admissions offices, HR departments, banks and doctors make life-changing decisions based on averages. Rose says that “works really well to understand the system or the group, but it fails miserably when you need to understand the individual, which is what we need to do.”

Rose talked with us about his new book: The End Of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness.

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5 comments on “Standards, Grades And Tests Are Wildly Outdated, Argues ‘End Of Average’

  • Depressing but all too true. As a teacher I see this sort of rubbish all the time. Marking is often about turning students into a single number so that universities don’t have to do anything more than cut off applicants to certain subjects (if they are popular) based on that number. 2 years of work to label a student with a single number. When I was applying to art college I took a folio and had an interview, any musician or artist goes through a similar process, why other subject areas cannot do the same and release students from what seems to me to be little more than an aide to efficient administration is beyond me. Particularly now that Universities are largely funded by students and not exclusively funded by government. Some states in Australia have 75% of a students overall mark down to standardised tests. Too bad if you are having an off day.

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  • @ hisxmark

    How would Mr. Rose address this failure?

    Don’t know about Mr Rose, I would suggest a good method is train your teachers and trust them. Use moderation practices to maintain a standard but after that trust your teachers to be professionals. When I was teaching people to fly I knew I had done my job right when my student flew solo and did a perfect landing, and continued to do perfect landings in all conditions. Simple standard – can fly. Failed standard – dead, crashed or almost crashed. I knew I could teach because I never had any students who crashed or even came close, I got there like most instructors by combinations of manipulating egos, coercion and towards the end outright throwing every uncomfortable experience I could safely do at them. My job to keep them alive while they learned to handle these situations every single time.

    Now who would want to trust standardized testing for pilot training? Or brain surgury, or plumbing or car maintenance for that matter? And yet this is largely the criteria on which many countries select future doctors, nurses, teachers etc. Pilots do do standardized testing as well as practical testing, and I agree with testing during training to pick out areas of knowledge or understanding that may be lacking but guess what you don’t have to score 100%. Care to tell me what knowledge you don’t think your pilot needs to know? The real reason you are safe flying with the average pilot is because someone risked their life to let them practice their skills until they could safely do it, and they let the student fly knowing that if they hadn’t done their job correctly the person could end up dead.

    The only reason standardised testing is used is only because it is cheaper than every sensible way, and its an easy metric to use, basically it’s thought to be cheap, but an ineffective tool is simply a waste of money.

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  • 4
    hisxmark says:

    So you test for competency. There are criteria. Leave it up to subjective opinions? That system has its own problems. In judging art it is a matter of taste.
    Other areas are more clear-cut.
    Student pilots, I seem to remember, have to pass ground school before they take the stick. There are always borderline cases. So we have arbitrary cutoff scores. It is not an ideal solution. But then neither, as Churchill remarked, is democracy.

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  • @hismark

    So you test for competency. There are criteria. Leave it up to subjective opinions? That system has its own problems. In judging art it is a matter of taste.

    I agree there are problems in my state of my country in teaching senior high students for example those judgments are made by the teacher teaching their own work program which has to pass through a Head of Department then the program has to be approved higher up and external to the school, then the grades given are moderated by a panel of experienced teachers in that field at a local level then a sample of those are kept for state moderation. All of this is time consuming and costly, but my point is not as time consuming and costly as not doing the job at all or doing it poorly. And yes there will inevitably be some subjective judgments in there, but the trick is to have backup and check of those subjective judgments against a criteria like a syllabus is the best possible way of doing it. We know exactly how noneffective standardized tested in my teacher training this was gone into again and again. For example you are by choosing the wording of a question you may exclude students who have poorer literacy but may in fact have some knowledge of the question to site just one problem. You also by necessity end up with teachers teaching to the test and so you beforehand select a very narrow, specific interpretation of the said syllabus which limits the knowledge base of the whole population of students to very narrow focus, this gives no variety in the pool of skills. I could go on, it is useful as a marker, as formative indicators, but useless as summative assessment.

    Student pilots, I seem to remember, have to pass ground school before they take the stick.

    I not commenting on training or criticizing theory teaching at all, I criticizing standardised testing as a useful tool to mark an individual as competent. The reason I use flight training as an example is I have some experience with it and it is very arbitrary, you get it wrong you are dead or your student is dead. Of course theory training and study is necessary and standardised tests are useful in trying to find possible areas of weak understanding but getting an incorrect answer may or may not mean the student doesn’t understand they may have just understood the questions grammar. Only with follow up will it become useful as an instrument. The idea that standardised testing is useful in any field beyond this is shown by the fact that almost any system that is really important that the student really knows their stuff does not use it alone. A brain surgeon would never be allowed to operate no matter how good their theoretical testing before they had observed, assisted then been observed performing parts of surgery and ramping up gradually under an experienced professional. The same applies to builders, plumbers, mechanics etc.

    It is not an ideal solution. But then neither, as Churchill remarked,
    is democracy.

    Churchill’s quote assumes there is no better alternative, in this case there is.


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