The risks of considering a child to be ‘average’

By Beccie Hawes, Head of Service at Rushall's Inclusion Advisory Service

I was recently proof reading some end of term reports for a colleague. I always read the teacher’s comment at the end first because they often really capture what a teacher thinks makes that pupil special. One really stood out:

‘Sam is a lovely, quiet member of the class. He always completes his work to the best of his ability and always hands in his homework on time. He is a popular member of the group and always follows our class rules reliably….’

When looking at standardised assessment scores for Sam you could perhaps expect to see them all say 100. You could then award him the dubious accolade of ‘Congratulations Sam, you are the most average of average’. You could also make the assumption not to worry about him as he’s there or there about. But is that the right thing to do?

I had never met Sam before but felt that, although his report was good, it wasn’t remarkable in any way. I couldn’t help wondering if we were missing something and if we were doing all that we could to help Sam be the best that he could be.

Sam’s termly teacher assessments had placed him as meeting age-related expectations. When we delved deeper, however, his scores were all within the ‘average’ band but his numbers were declining over time. It became clear that Sam was on the slide.

The beauty of a standardised assessment is that the scores show progress or lack of in real time as the goalposts move in line with the child’s age. His scores showed that he was not making or maintaining progress.

We decided to have a chat with Sam. The conversation was a revelation. Sam said he had always coped well with school work but was ‘running out of coping’ as the ‘work was getting trickier and trickier’. The conversation with Sam made us stop and think. We had missed the start of Sam’s slide and there could be others like him.

Consequently, we have adopted the following five key principles when scrutinising assessment data.

1. Accepting ‘average’ on face value is not satisfactory. The ‘average’ standardised score of between 85 and 115 is a large band to move within. ‘Average’ can be misleading as it may stop us from identifying pupils that are either beginning to experience difficulties as their coping runs out or identifying pupils that are making perhaps accelerated progress.

2. Pupil voice as part of assessment practice is essential. The pupil’s thoughts about their own performance and how they feel in the classroom can bring a whole new level of understanding of what it is like for each individual learner and their perceptions of the barriers that they face to learning.

3. Trust your professional hunch. If a pupil’s scores don’t ‘sit right’ it is essential to delve deeper and drill down.

4. A fresh pair of eyes is vital in providing support and challenge when interrogating results. Having a colleague who doesn’t know the pupil explore your assessment data ‘cold’ can prompt questions that encourage you to look beyond the assessment score and¬ performance descriptors to find the teaching tweak that could make a huge difference and the reasons behind any surprises.

5. Triangulation is crucial in getting the full picture. Look at the all of the available assessment information about the pupil over time and compare performance across assessments so that a deeper understanding of the pupil’s typical progress from their unique starting point is clear. This can be used as an early alert system – proactive is always better than reactive.

So what happened to Sam?

We developed a programme of subject specific vocabulary, key concepts and strategies to help Sam ‘cope’ in lessons and set up systems for him to signal when he needed help. Sam and his teachers can definitely see some promising green shoots. He now asks for help much more readily when he feels that his coping skills are low, he is becoming more resilient and confident and he answers more questions in a faster time. All in all Sam doesn’t sound so ‘average’ now!


Read more in our new report, The Lost Middle: how the term ‘average’ can obscure student problems and potential