Following the government decision to cancel summer examinations, this year’s GCSE and A-Level grades will be predicted by teachers and normalised by a nationally applied formula. This blog outlines the debates prompted by this decision which focus around fears of existing structural disadvantages operating within schools and universities further discriminating against BME and under-privileged students.
In Wonkhe, Mark Corver explains a model that dataHE has developed to support admissions on the basis of predicted grades. Crover argues that whilst predicted grades are less accurate than exam results, given that predicted grades were issued before exams were cancelled, they have roughly the same amount of bias expected in any normal year. This blog considers how the problem of existing bias may negatively impact BME students in particular under these new guidelines.
Specifically, Ofqual recently published details on how GCSE, AS and A-level grades will be awarded this summer. By late May, colleges will be required to submit the grade students “would be most likely to have achieved if they had sat their exams and completed any non-exam assessment”. This judgement should balance different sources of evidence such as classwork, book work, non-exam assessment, participation in performances, mock-exam results and previous exam results.
Further, colleges will also need to submit a rank order of students at their institution by performance for each grade, which will be used to “standardise judgements” and allow grade boundaries to change as appropriate.
Some in the sector, such as Dennis Sherwood, an independent consultant, consider the guidelines to be “pragmatic, effective, fair” and envisages that teachers’ “individual and collective professional judgements” could lead to the “fairest ever” exam grades. 
Further, the Association of Colleges chief executive David Hughes said that the transition of the assessment system “is a sensible and pragmatic approach that places high trust in teachers, schools and colleges” and “Colleges will implement this process rigorously and professionally in order to generate accurate and fair outcomes”.
However, teachers (however excellent) are human and part of society, not super-human and outside society. They are thus prone to bias. Previous studies have highlighted that the education system like most of our institutions in the UK is riddled with structural inequalities that sustain prejudice towards disadvantaged students.
Consequently, a letter signed by 21 education and equality academics and experts led by racial equality think tank The Runnymede Trust, was sent to education secretary Gavin Williamson highlighting concern that students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, especially higher-attaining students, were more likely to have their final grades under-predicted in comparison with their more advantaged peers.
The letter points to multiple bodies of evidence, such as to Dr Gill Wyness’ 2017 research report, The Rules of the Game, which found that “high attaining disadvantaged students are more likely to have their grades under-predicted than their richer counterparts”.
The signatories stressed concern that pupils from ethnic minority backgrounds would be disproportionately affected by teachers making lower assessments of disadvantaged pupils’ potential given that “well over a quarter of black and minority ethnic (BAME) GCSE students (including much higher proportions of Gypsy, Roma and Irish Traveller students) are on free school meals”.
Notably, Professor David Gillborn at the University of Birmingham states, “We are also aware that teachers’ expectations of black students and their working-class peers tend to be systematically lower than warranted by their performance in class”.
The letter calls on the government to give teachers more guidance and support on how to ensure predictions are fair and accurate “in order to reduce inconsistencies across schools and pupils”. Particularly, it calls for guidance on how to undertake equality assessments of final grade predictions, which could include disaggregating teacher-assessed grades from data concerning protected characteristics, or data on pupils’ special educational needs.
The Runnymede Trust deputy director Zubaida Haque states: “This is about preventing a gross injustice … Because of the unprecedented pressures of the coronavirus outbreak, combined with an assessment system that has not been tested before, there is a real risk that structural inequalities which already disadvantage students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, as well as BAME students, could be made much worse”.
She added: “A generation of young people could lose out on opportunities for their future because of Covid-19 if we don’t act now”.
The letter also encourages universities to consider pupils’ socio-economic backgrounds and contextualised admissions criteria so that poorer pupils would not be disadvantaged when applying to more elite universities.
And it asks the Office for Students to facilitate accountability by monitoring and reporting on “offers made on the back of school predictions by ethnic and gender group to check for any bias at the point of admissions”.
Additionally, UCU have previously conducted research which shows that high-achieving, disadvantaged students are more likely to have their grades under-predicted than their wealthier peers.
UCU general secretary Jo Grady states: “Our primary concern is that disadvantaged students are the ones most likely to miss out. Research shows that they fare badly when it comes to predicted grades and they are less likely to be able to put life on hold and delay sitting exams, or have access to the tools required to navigate any appeals system.
She continues: “The context in which qualifications are achieved needs to be considered by colleges and universities; not all achievements are equal and they should not be seen as such. Colleges and universities will need to make greater use of contextual data so that students progress according to their achievements and, crucially, their potential”.
Clearly, the problem of how to mitigate any potential negative fallout from the cancellation of summer exams for BME students is incredibly complex and the solutions are still being worked out. Yet, it is crucial to keep equalities issues at the heart of this debate and to uphold the Ofqual commitment to “make every effort to ensure that the process agreed does not disadvantage any particular group of students”.
The RHS ‘Race, Ethnicity & Equality in UK History: A Report and Resource for Change’ examined in detail the already ‘leaky pipeline’ in History; from Undergraduate to Postgraduate study of History (see p. 26, 30-40) and Covid-19 could worsen the ‘leaky pipeline’ from GSCE to A-Level study of History and consequently onto university.
Ultimately, the discussion started by experts is designed to help “schools and universities to achieve a fairer and more robust system in student assessment” so that no student is left behind.
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 Sherwood has previously produced much of HEPI’s past output on A-Levels, including 1 school exam grade in 4 is wrong. Does this matter? and Trusting teachers is the best way to deliver this year’s exam results – and those in future years?
 Follow @KidsOfColourHQ on the cancellation of GCSE and A-Level examinations.