Just ask them: 9 out of 10 high school students are above average

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We often have a need to ask a question that relates to academic performance in studies – so we can analyze results across a range of academic achievement. We necessarily have to rely on self-reports, and kids and teens tend to paint a fairly optimistic performance of their academic performance.

I used to think that this sort of optimism associated with your grades tended to result from faulty memory more than anything intentional. I know that my high school GPA and my college track times have miraculously improved as I have aged. But our results suggest that this isn’t the case – that students will greatly overstate their academic performance while they are still in high school.

The question we ask is straightforward: Which best describes your academic performance so far?

What we find is the following …

  • 7% of students will say they are in the top 1% of the class
  • 17% will say they are in the top 5%
  • 38% will say they are in the top 15%
  • 61% will say they are in the top 25%
  • 90% will say they are in the top 50%

So, 90% of high school students feel they are above average academically.

Is this a problem? I tend to think not – having confidence and a healthy sense of self-worth can be a good thing as children move out on their own. However, when this inflated sense of performance moves towards narcissism or unrealistic expectations it can be setting our children up for failure.

It can be challenging to ascribe a cause to this. Most commentators agree that the Millennial generation is characterized as being over-protected and having adults in their lives who continually reinforce how special they are. Grade inflation in schools and colleges can engender this feeling. Youth sports have moved to encouraging and reinforcing participation at least as much as rewarding successful competition. I suppose this all yields a generation with a healthy ego, but not necessarily one that has learned to deal with failure.

When searching for causes, we need to look towards parents as well, as they set the context for their children. In a parallel study, we have shown that parents are even more likely to feel their children are above average than the children themselves are. Among parents …

  • 11% will say their child is in the top 1% of the class
  • 40% will say their child is in the top 5%
  • 63% will say their child is in the top 15%
  • 84% will say their child is in the top 25%
  • 93% will say their child is in the top 50%

Again, while there may be positives in parents being optimistic regarding the abilities of their children, it can also be a cause of complacency. Why does the US lag other countries in test performance? Perhaps when this many parents overstate their children’s academic achievement it is difficult to create any urgency behind the issue. It is quite common on surveys to see parents state that the nation’s schools are doing a poor job, but their local district is outstanding.

“Well, that’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” –Garrison Keillor

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