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Fantasy Football and the Problem with Averaging

Obsessed with Fantasy Football

I have to confess something: I care way too much about Fantasy Football. Throughout the fall, I’m constantly checking my Yahoo Fantasy app, plotting my next waiver wire strategy, or looking online for updates about player injuries. I am addicted to Fantasy Football.

This year I was the champion of my Fantasy Football league. Actually, that’s an understatement. I smashed the competition!

Players in our league can win in 3 categories:

  1. Regular Season Champ: After 13 weeks, this team has the best win/loss record and qualifies for the playoffs as the top seed.
  2. Playoff Champ: This team makes the playoffs and then wins the 3 week end-of-season tournament.
  3. Total Points Champ: This team scores the most points over the course of the 16 week season.

As this year’s regular season, playoff, and total points champ, my team was the undisputed champion of the league.

My goal isn’t to brag about my prowess at Fantasy Football. (Although I have to admit I enjoy doing so…) But for this post to help educators, I first need you to understand the following: My season was the best season of anyone in my league and would be considered a dream season for anybody who plays Fantasy Football.

Then I got an email from Yahoo Fantasy Sports, our league’s Fantasy Football Platform.

A Surprise for the Champ: My Season Story

I love Yahoo’s mobile app, their player updates, and the outstanding data analysis they provide to help players make decisions. So when I received an email from Yahoo with a link to the my “Season Story” I was excited to read their analysis of my successful year.

It turned out that by “Season Story” Yahoo meant it was sharing with me an overall grade for, or assessment of, my season. Imagine my surprise when I learned Yahoo assigned a B- as the grade for my dream season! How could this be?

Grading: Yahoo-style

Much like what happens in the traditional American classroom, Yahoo had used a formula to determine my final grade. The formula averaged together the following 3 key data points:

  1. Projection and Final Standing: 40% of the Season Grade
    This compares where I ended my season with where at the beginning of the season I was projected to finish. Yahoo graded me at an A level, which makes sense. After all, I was the champion in all three of our league’s categories. Plus, I had been projected to finish 14th out of 16 teams. With this combination of overall achievement and growth, if I wasn’t an A in Projection and Final Standing, who could be?
  2. Weekly Performance: 30% of the Season Grade
    Yahoo averaged together each week’s performance to get this score. Yahoo graded me at an A- level. An A- makes sense. I could even agree with a B+. Some weeks my team was amazing. Other weeks it was good. But it was never bad.
  3. Draft Strategy: 30% of the Season Grade
    Yahoo graded me at an F level. In other words, at the beginning of the season, Yahoo didn’t think I had selected a good team. Was Yahoo correct that I picked the wrong players? That might have been a logical prediction early on. Perhaps I didn’t start the season on a strong note. Yahoo already noted that with my Projection and Final Standing category. But the evaluation of my season’s start ended up being the reason my grade was a B- at the end of the season.

Honestly, this grading methodology makes no sense. The purpose of the season grade should be to communicate how successful the season was. With that in mind, the only grade that should have mattered was the summative score of A representing my Projection and Final Standing. That score shows that I achieved at the highest possible level and that I grew beyond expectations. Averaging together the other data points only detracted from the accuracy of what Yahoo was trying to communicate.


Comparing Yahoo and Schools

Similarly, the common and very traditional practice of averaging together different types of student data taken at various points in time throughout a school year detracts from the ability of a student’s final grade to accurately communicate mastery of content.

Let’s compare Yahoo’s grading language to the language we use in schools:

  1. Projection and Final Standing = Summative Assessment and Student Growth
    Where a student ends up when all is said and done is the summative assessment of a student’s level of content mastery, and student growth refers to much they grow from start to finish.
  2. Weekly Performance = Formative Assessment
    All the things students do along the way - the practice that helps them learn, the homework, the classwork, the quizzes, the activities - these are formative assessments. Formative assessment’s purpose is to serve as practice and to provide feedback that helps student both grow and achieve summative mastery.
  3. Draft Strategy = Pre-Assessment
    Where a student is before the learning occurs is the pre-assessment. Pre-assessment data helps us know what formative assessments will be necessary to help individual students grow to guide each of them toward summative assessment mastery.

Lessons from Yahoo for Educators

I believe that by studying Yahoo’s methodology educators will notice the weakness inherent in our own widely-accepted traditional grading and assessment practices. Specifically, we can be reminded that:

  • Averaging past digressions with future successes falsifies grades.
    Pre-assessment data, or data that represents where a student was early in the learning process, should never be averaged with summative assessment data. The early data is useful to guide students toward growth and mastery, but it should never be held against a student by being part of a grade calculation. Otherwise, we run the risk of having the Draft Strategy dictate the Season Story despite the more accurate picture painted by the Projection and Final Standing.
  • Formative assessment is useful for increasing learning but less so for determining a grade.
    Knowing my weekly performance enabled me to make decisions to help my team improve, but my team not always performing at an A level does not detract from my team mastering its goals and growing appropriately. If, as a result of formative assessment feedback, a student makes learning decisions that brings her closer to summative mastery, why would we then base the score that represents the summative mastery on the formative feedback?
  • Formative assessment data loses value once we have summative data.
    Why did Yahoo care about my Draft Strategy and Weekly Performance once it knew my Final Standing? It’s possible that formative assessment data could be used as additional evidence of learning if we are concerned that the summative assessment doesn’t paint a complete picture, but, in general, once mastery is demonstrated, the fact the student wasn’t always at that same level of mastery becomes irrelevant.
  • It’s impossible to create the perfect formula to measure all student learning.
    Yahoo chose to use a 30/30/40 formula. Why? Some schools say Homework should count 10%. Why? Some districts say exams must count 25% of a grade. Why? Some teachers make formative assessment count 40%. Why? Some schools average semesters, some average quarters, and some average 6 grading periods. Why? There is an inherent problem with averaging. We make up formulas because they sound nice and add up to 100%, but there is no way to definitive formula for determining learning or growth. Averaging points in time, chunks of time, or data taken over time will always mask accuracy. Yet educators, like Yahoo, feel the need to try to find a formula the justify grades.
  • Using formulas to determine grades inherently leads to a focus on earning points instead of on learning content.
    In the case of Yahoo, they didn’t advertise their formula in advance. Now that I know this formula, I still don’t anticipate changing my strategy in the future because, frankly, I don’t care about my season grade. I care about winning. But students and parents are naturally going to care about grades because of the doors that grades on transcripts open or close. As long as there are final grades there will always an interest in getting good grades. When grades are the result of a formula it naturally leads to a quest for numerator points, something that may not be connected to learning. When this is the case, students ask for opportunities to earn points. When grades are a true reflection of content mastery, a focus on learning is more likely to result. In these situations, students ask for opportunities to demonstrate learning.

A Call to Action

It’s time for schools to stop being like Yahoo Fantasy Sports when it comes to our assessment and grading practices.

My Season Story grade should be an accurate reflection of where my season ended up. Along the way, I need the descriptive feedback that will enable me to make informed growth-based decisions.

Students need final grades that are accurate reflections of where they end up in the learning process. Along the way, they need appropriate descriptive feedback so they can make informed growth-based decisions, as well.

Traditional grading is rooted in decades of practice, and shifting the course of our institutional inertia to focus more appropriately on learning rather than grading will take effort and time. Schools must choose to embark on Assessment Journeys that lead to accurate feedback and descriptions of learning, mastery of content, and student growth.

Let’s get started today!

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Comment by Scott Habeeb on July 10, 2019 at 8:58pm

Michelle - I love the "glimpse inside your brain" :)

Here's what I would suggest: Go to Groups and join the Assessment PD Module so you can do the 9 Forum Discussions that are your "summer homework".  After you do those, come back to this one and give it some additional thought.  Then, let's get together and chat.

Looking forward to seeing/reading your thoughts on the summer homework modules!  Good stuff so far!

Comment by Michelle A Erdt on July 10, 2019 at 11:22am

I love your use of a very real life example of grading practices and their affect on you as an adult. It seems very obvious in this example that the Yahoo grading style is skewed data. It seems like common sense that a pre assessment should never be used in grading, but alas it is not.  If I am being honest, I probably grade on standards based learning around 65%, but there are a few things in my way of completely embracing it in the classroom I'd like to hear feedback on:

 Your example is great and meaningful because you actually want to do well in your fantasy league. What about a student who doesn't really care about learning the content? Sometimes that student is motivated extrinsically by points rather than mastery.

Or, what about the student who is working his/ her tail off, but can not master the standard completely. Is that student only ever capable of a C or a B because B/C represent "partial mastery?" Sometimes I like that this is where points can come in to help push a student's grade over the threshold from a B to an A. I guess the way to combat this would be making our standard's based grading scale unique to each student individually?

I guess( sorry elementary teachers) the intrinsic motivation of mastering a standard needs to be developed upon entering school? That way we can train up the mindset from an early age.

I hope this is coherent. This is a glimpse inside my brain as I ponder how this looks in practice within a classroom. I definitely have the mindset and am sold on the fact that it makes perfect sense. I would like to hear thoughts on the execution.

Comment by Scott Habeeb on February 15, 2019 at 9:08am

Thanks, Michael.  Those are common arguments, but there are definitely ways around it.  It starts with a change in thought - not a change in practice.  The problem you're encountering would be similar to telling someone to stop using a hammer to pound a nail - use a screwdriver instead.  If the point is to pound a nail, you need a hammer. 

If the point is to use grades as a way to reward compliance, then you need the traditional methods.  If this point is to rank and sort students, then you need the traditional methods.  But if the point is to increase learning - you don't need the same tools.  We have to help people see the bigger and more important goal of increasing learning.

Too often schools try to start by advocating a change in teacher behavior or teacher practices.  The correct place to start is with a change in philosophy.  Once that happens - and it definitely can happen - then amazing new practices will follow.

Let me know if you'd ever like to talk more. :)

Comment by Michael C. Briscoe Sr. on February 15, 2019 at 8:52am

 I really liked the analogy, the Yahoo is the way most teachers grade. I have spoke with many of the teachers at our school and they still do it the Yahoo. I was not able to convince them to change, citing such as: if not a grade they will not do it, that what my teachers did, etc.. 

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