Coronavirus: Williamson warned over grading 'injustice'

Academics and experts write to education secretary to warn that biased teacher assessments of GCSE and A-level pupils could mean a 'generation of young people could lose out'

Catherine Lough

exam hall

The education secretary Gavin Williamson has today been urged to ensure that GCSE and A-level grades based on teacher assessment are not biased against pupils from disadvantaged or ethnic minority backgrounds, in a letter signed by 21 education and equality academics and experts.

The letter, initiated by racial equality think tank The Runnymede Trust, was sent to Mr Williamson today following the announcement two weeks ago that GCSEs and A levels were cancelled for this year, with pupils to be awarded "calculated" grades based on teacher assessment, prior attainment and other data.


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The letter acknowledges that the "Department for Education, schools and Ofqual are doing their best to create a fair predicted grading system", but outlines 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.

It notes that the academics' concerns are reflected on the Department for Education's website, which includes the question "How will you address the fact that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to have their grades under-predicted?" and answers that the government is "not awarding students their predicted grades" while Ofqual "will make every effort to ensure that the process agreed does not disadvantage any particular group of students".

It also refers 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 letter says that 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", its signatories were concerned that pupils from ethnic minority backgrounds would be disproportionately affected by teachers making lower assessments of disadvantaged pupils' potential. 

It adds: "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” as highlighted by Professor David Gillborn [a professor of critical race studies at the University of Birmingham] and others." 

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".

And it says teachers and schools need 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 said: “This is about preventing a gross injustice. This group of students are already at the mercy of a grading system that that has not been evaluated, and is being planned in a tight timeframe under highly exceptional circumstances.

"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 advises universities to consider pupils' socio-economic backgrounds and contextualised admissions criteria so that poorer pupils would not be disadvantaged when applying to more selective universities.

And it called on the Office for Students to ensure that universities monitored and reported on "offers made on the back of school predictions by ethnic and gender group to check for any bias at the point of admissions".

"We know that the task of attributing grades to students in light of cancelled exams will not be an easy one for teachers and schools.

"We hope that our recommendations will be received in the spirit of helping schools and universities to achieve a fairer and more robust system in student assessment."

Here is the letter in full, including the 21 signatories:

Dear Rt Hon Gavin Williamson,

Re: Covid-19 Cancellation of GCSEs, AS and A levels in 2020

We hope this letter finds you well amidst the ongoing Covid-19 crisis.

The Runnymede Trust is a leading national race equality think tank which was founded in 1968. We look to continually shine a light on racial inequalities within the UK through intelligence led research and policy engagement.

We are writing to you today with regards to the alternative arrangements which are being made for students’ final grades in light of the cancellation of GCSEs, AS and A levels. As the government announced almost two weeks ago (20 March), final exam grades are now likely to be based on teacher assessments and prior attainment, working closely with Ofqual (the independent qualifications regulator) to ensure that the final predicted grades are the result of a fair and robust process.

While we are aware that the Department for Education, schools and Ofqual are doing their best to create a fair predicted grading system, we are concerned that students from lower socio-economic backgrounds (particularly higher attaining students from lower SES backgrounds) are more likely to have their final grades under-predicted compared to higher attaining students from more advantaged backgrounds, and that this will be exacerbated during the Covid-19 crisis. This is based on well-evidenced and robust research by Dr Gill Wyness, and is also reflected on the department’s own website.

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, we are concerned that this issue of under-predictions in grades for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds will impact on BAME students disproportionately. 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” as highlighted by Professor David Gillborn and others.

While the Covid-19 crisis has meant that we are working in exceptional circumstances, we believe it is important for the Department for Education and Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) to additionally undertake the following measures in order to ensure a fair, transparent and robust system which will more accurately reflect the ability and attainment of students from different backgrounds:

 

  1. Provide teachers with more guidance and support on how to ensure more accurate predictions in order to reduce inconsistencies across schools and pupils.
  2. Provide teachers and schools with guidance on how to undertake Equality Impact Assessments of final grade predictions. This could involve schools disaggregating final predicted grades by protected characteristics, as well as SEND in order to monitor and reduce inconsistencies across different groups of pupils.

We would also urge university admissions to consider carefully "contextualised admissions" criteria in order to ensure that students from lower socio-economic backgrounds do not lose out from the opportunity to attend more selective universities, with a view to meeting the admissions targets set in their Access and Participation Plans.

And finally, we would recommend that OfS requires all HEIs to monitor and report on offers made on the back of school predictions by ethnic and gender group to check for any bias at the point of admissions.

We want to thank you and your government for all that you are doing to navigate this country through these extraordinary and challenging times. We know that the task of attributing grades to students in light of cancelled exams will not be an easy one for teachers and schools. We hope that our recommendations will be received in the spirit of helping schools and universities to achieve a fairer and more robust system in student assessment.

Yours sincerely,

Dr Zubaida Haque, deputy director, The Runnymede Trust

Jeremy Crook, chief executive, Black Training and Enterprise Group

Kunle Olulode, director, Voice for Change

Andy Gregg, chief executive, Race on the Agenda

Sarah Mann, director, Friends, Families and Travellers

Lord Simon Wooley, director, Operation Black Vote

Kahiye Alim, director, Council of Somali Organisations

Mushtaq Khan, BMENational

Yvonne McNamara, CEO, Traveller Movement

Atiha Chaudry, Manchester and Greater Manchester BME Networks

Dr Nicola Rollock, associate professor, Goldsmiths, University of London

Professor David Gillborn, Birmingham University

Professor Kalwant Bhopal, Birmingham University

Professor Vikki Boliver, Durham University

Professor Vini Lander, Leeds-Beckett University

Miss Rachel C Boyle, Edge Hill University

Ms Annette Hayton, senior research fellow, Bath University

Professor Paul Warmington, Warwick University

Dr Remi Joseph-Salisbury, University of Manchester

Dr Reza Gholami, Birmingham University

Professor Jacqueline Stevenson, University of Leeds

 

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author bio

Catherine Lough

Catherine Lough is a reporter at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @CathImogenLough

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