Teachers' estimated marking 'could be affected by bias'

GCSE and A-level pupils risk missing out on grades they deserve because teachers’ estimated marking ‘could be affected by bias’ against students

  • Report said exams regulator’s appeal process is not accessible for all students
  • GCSE and A-level exams were cancelled in March due to coronavirus pandemic
  • Grades for students in England will be calculated on teacher assessment

Pupils could miss out on the exam results they deserve this summer as the system risks being ‘unfair’ for disadvantaged students, MPs have warned.

The Commons Education Select Committee report said England’s exams regulator’s process for allowing students to appeal their grades if they believe discrimination has occurred is not accessible for all students.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson cancelled GCSE and A-level exams in March due to the coronavirus pandemic. It is the first time in their history they have been cancelled. 

Grades for students in England will instead be calculated based on teacher assessment and awarded on the usual dates next month.  

But the committee said it was ‘concerned’ that poorer pupils, black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) students and children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) ‘could be disadvantaged’ by calculated grades – especially in light of research evidence on unconscious bias.

The report calls for pupils with SEND to be able to appeal results on the basis of malpractice if appropriate access arrangements were not in place for the work used to calculate their grade.

A report said England’s exams regulator’s process for allowing students to appeal their grades if they believe discrimination has occurred is not accessible for all students (file photo)

The MPs also say disadvantaged pupils, and those without family resources or wider support, ‘risk being shut out’ of the appeals system which is likely to favour more affluent students.

Individual pupils will not be allowed to challenge teacher-assessed grades or rank order. A school can appeal to the exam board if it believes it made an error when submitting a grade, or if it believes an exam board made a mistake.

Committee chairman Robert Halfon said they are far from convinced the appeal system will be fair

Ofqual has said it expects exam boards to investigate evidence of ‘serious malpractice’ raised by pupils who have concerns about bias or discrimination surrounding teacher-assessed grades and rank order.

But the MPs say: ‘We are extremely concerned that pupils will require evidence of bias or discrimination to raise a complaint about their grades. 

‘It is unrealistic and unfair to put the onus on pupils to have, or to be able to gather, evidence of bias or discrimination.’

On the grading system, committee chairman Robert Halfon said they are far from convinced the appeal system will be fair. 

He said: ‘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.’

Unconscious bias is making judgements based on a person’s background or race without being aware of the bias. The committee insited the report was not a criticism of teachers as everyone can be affected by unconscious bias, the BBC reported.   

Students in England who are unhappy with teacher-assessed grades, or who are unable to receive a calculated grade this summer, can take A-level exams in October and GCSE exams in November.

But the committee has called for the Department for Education (DfE) to provide guidance for schools and colleges, outlining the minimum requirements for teaching support for pupils opting for an exam.

The Government should also extend its £1 billion catch-up funding to include disadvantaged post-16 pupils in colleges and schools to ‘ensure this is not a lost generation,’ the MPs said.

The report says: ‘The pandemic’s impact on learning loss does not stop when pupils turn 16. Post-16 learners, whether they are resitting key English and Maths GCSEs, or preparing to sit final exams before entering higher education or the workplace, deserve proper catch-up support.’

Mr Halfon added that there isn’t a level playing field for pupils and students doing autumn exams because of the lack of guaranteed support from the DfE. 

He said: ‘The absence of a post-16 catch-up fund exacerbates these problems.’

General secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders Geoff Barton 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.’

An Ofqual spokesman said: ‘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 socioeconomic 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 spokesman 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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