MPs warn of 2020 GCSE and A-level grading bias

The regulator should publish details of the model used to standardise grades this year immediately, say MPs

Catherine Lough

GCSEs and A levels 2021: 7 in 10 teachers say not all grades 'fair'

Pupils could face lower than expected GCSE and A-level results because the grading system this year may be biased against young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and black, Asian and minority-ethnic (BAME) communities, MPs have warned.

The House of Commons' education committee has published a report warning that there are issues over the fairness of this year's GCSE and A-level results.

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It acknowledges that both the Department for Education (DfE) and Ofqual have "acted swiftly to devise alternative arrangements so that pupils can be awarded grades" this year, but raises "concerns that the system described by Ofqual as the “fairest possible in the circumstances” could be "unfair" for disadvantaged pupils, BAME pupils, looked-after children and pupils with special educational needs or disabilities (SEND).

After GCSE and A-level exams were cancelled because of the coronavirus outbreak, Ofqual decided to award grades based on teacher assessment, a "rank order" of pupils in each school for each grade and subject, and historic school performance data.

The regulator has created a "standardisation model" to be used by exam boards to ensure grading consistency, which the education committee's report says would "play a crucial role in ensuring fairness" given the "potential risks of bias, inaccuracy and grade inflation".

"We call on Ofqual to make a transparency guarantee – a commitment to publishing details of its standardisation model immediately. Ofqual should not be afraid of scrutiny or open debate over whether its model offers the fairest outcome for every pupil and provider," the report says.

It also notes that pupils must be able to appeal their grade if they feel bias or discrimination has occurred, but notes that "Ofqual has not given enough thought on how to make this route accessible to all pupils".

Racial equality think tank the Runnymede Trust has previously said that appeals relating to bias put "the burden of proof on the student", and the committee's report today points out that "without support, proving bias or discrimination would be an almost impossible threshold for any pupil to evidence".

"Disadvantaged pupils, and those without family resources or wider support, risk being shut out of this route. Ofqual must urgently publish the evidence thresholds for proving bias and discrimination, clearly setting out what evidence will be required," it says.

It says Ofqual must identify whether some groups of pupils have been disadvantaged by the calculated grading process, and, "if this is the case, Ofqual’s standardisation model must adjust the grades of the pupils affected upwards".

The report also recommends:

  • That Ofqual's advice and appeals helpline for pupils be "free, and staffed by professionals trained to provide gold-standard, step-by-step assistance and advice to pupils about their options".
  • Catch-up funding must be made available to disadvantaged post-16 pupils so they are not left behind.
  • Ofqual's evaluation should include data on attainment by characteristics including gender, SEND, looked-after pupils and eligibility for free school meals, "providing full transparency on whether there are statistically significant differences between attainment this year compared with previous years".
  • "Ofqual must be completely transparent about its standardisation model and publish the model immediately to allow time for scrutiny."
  • It should collect and publish anonymised data of where appeals come from, by school type, region, gender, ethnicity, SEND status, whether pupils are looked-after and FSM eligibility.
  • Publish and communicate the evidence thresholds for proving bias or discrimination to parents and pupils in advance of results day.
  • Ensure the helplines provided by Ofqual and the National Careers Service are free to call and staffed by trained professionals. 

Robert Halfon MP, chair of the education committee, said: “The cross-party committee recognises the enormous work clearly undertaken by the Department for Education and Ofqual during the coronavirus pandemic and accepts that no system developed for awarding grades will be perfect.

"However, we have serious worries about the fairness of the model developed by Ofqual. There is a risk it will lead to unfair bias and discrimination against already disadvantaged groups and we are far from convinced that the appeal system, which will be more important than ever this year, will be fair.

"The appeals process seems to favour the well-heeled and sharp-elbowed and there is the potential for the system to resemble the Wild West of appeals with different systems used by different exam boards.

"The lack of guaranteed support from the DfE for pupils and students doing autumn exams means there isn’t a level playing field for those students. The absence of a post-16 catch-up fund exacerbates these problems.

"We urge Ofqual to be fully transparent about their standardisation model and develop a state-of-the-art appeals system that is genuinely fair to all students whatever their background. There is still hope that all young people will get what they’ve earnt but Ofqual and the Government must act now so this generation can go on to flourish in their future work and education.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Schools and colleges are utterly opposed to discrimination, and have done everything possible to guard against any hint of unconscious bias.

"They have gone about the task of deciding centre-assessed grades in extraordinarily difficult circumstances and with the utmost diligence. They know their students well and have done their very best to ensure the grades submitted to the exam boards are fair and accurate.

“The exam boards will now apply to these grades a process called ‘standardisation’, which takes into account factors such as the past performance of centres, and will make adjustments accordingly. The purpose of this exercise is to ensure the distribution of grades awarded nationally this year is consistent with previous years.

“However, this has raised a significant concern that students in schools and colleges which would have performed better in exams this year will lose out. We agree with the Education Committee that Ofqual must be completely transparent about its standardisation model and publish it immediately.

“Everybody in education understands the limitations of the system that is being used this year, and we are sure that sixth forms, colleges, and universities will all show a spirit of generosity in determining applications. We all want to see students progress in the normal way.”

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: "Faced with the disruption to this year’s GCSE and A-level exams, Ofqual was left with very little option other than to award grades this year based on teacher judgement and historical data on school performance in these qualifications.

"GCSE and A-level qualifications are over-reliant on exams. If these cannot be taken, because of a pandemic, then exam boards need to use other evidence on which to base pupils’ grades. 

"Any sensible qualification system would draw from a range of evidence, including teacher assessment and extended pupil projects. If this had been in place this year, there would be less concern on the part of the Education Select Committee, and parents and pupils, about the awarding of grades this year.

"The Education Select Committee is right to be concerned about the potential for already disadvantaged pupils to be disproportionately negatively affected by Ofqual’s system of calculating grades this year. Ofqual must respond to the Select Committee’s concerns, showing how the processes they adopt for this year will not discriminate against pupils who already struggle to realise their potential in our education system." 

 A spokesperson for Ofqual said: "Although exams have been cancelled this summer, most students will receive calculated grades in time to progress to further study or employment as planned.

"Teachers have been an integral part of this process, and we echo the Committee’s recognition of their hard work and professionalism in making this year’s arrangements work for their students.

"The Committee acknowledges the important role standardisation will play in aligning results across schools and colleges – so that universities, colleges and employers can have confidence they carry the same currency as in any other year and that students can compete on a level playing field.

"The standardisation model is a critical tool to make sure standards are aligned between centres and will ensure that national results this summer are broadly similar to previous years.

"We have extensively tested the model to ensure it gives students the fairest, most accurate results possible and, so far as possible, that students are not advantaged or disadvantaged on the basis of their socio-economic background or particular protected characteristics, and we will evaluate outcomes.

"We agree that students, their parents, carers and teachers need to understand how their results have been calculated and we have committed to publishing full details of the model in due course."

A DfE spokesperson said: “The vast majority of students will receive a calculated grade this summer that enables them to move on to the next stage of their education or training.

“Ofqual has developed a robust process that will take into account a range of evidence, including non-exam assessment and mock results, with the primary aim of ensuring grades are as fair as possible for all students.
“If students are unhappy with their grade, they will have the opportunity to sit an exam in the autumn – or to appeal it through their school or college if they believe a process error has been made.”

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Catherine Lough

Catherine Lough is a reporter at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @CathImogenLough

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