Racial stereotyping by teachers could bias pupil assessments

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A new report by the Centre for Market and Public Organisation claims that some ethnic groups are systematically being ‘under-assessed’ relative to their White peers. If true, schools could actually be increasing inequalities of educational achievement between Caribbeans and whites or between rich and poor through racial stereotyping.

The report, published in September, highlights how low expectations of a pupil can have a devastating effect, leading to pupils reducing their effort at school, so self-fulfilling the prophecy.

Negative stereotyping by teachers is part of the broad pattern of persistent inequalities that can expand the black-white test score gap, says the report, and teachers’ perceptions, expectations, and behaviours probably do help sustain the gap.

The English National Curriculum is built around measuring concrete, well-defined levels of achievement, assessed separately for English, maths and science. At age 11 the level achieved is assessed in two ways: by a written exam, nationally set and remotely marked, and by assessment by the pupil’s own teacher.

The report compared two measures of children’s ability at age 11: their results on Key Stage 2 tests - which are externally marked - and teachers’ assessments of their ability. It found there were systematic racial differences in the assessments.

The report by Simon Burgess and Ellen Greaves found statistically and quantitatively significant differences in the test/assessment scores across ethnic groups. Drawing on related research from India, the report gives examples of lower exam scores being assigned to lower caste children, and in Sweden where girls are more generously rewarded in teacher assessments than boys.

The report also highlights research showing that teacher-student interaction was fraught with conflict and suspicion for Black Caribbean pupils. 

The report concludes that there are enduring and significant differences in teachers’ assessments of pupils from different ethnic groups.

On average, Black Caribbean and Black African pupils are under-assessed relative to white pupils, and Indian, Chinese and mixed white-Asian pupils are over-assessed. These differences remain after controlling for individual characteristics, and also for school fixed effects.

There are also important differences across subjects within these ethnic groups, and differences between schools across groups and subjects.

When forming an assessment of a pupil’s likely progress, teachers use information on the past performance of members of that group in that school from previous years.

“These results matter for two debates,” says the report. “First, if the systematic teacher under-assessment of some groups is reflected in lower teacher effort for these pupils, then this may impact on their educational outcomes.

“Given that the school performance of some groups, particularly Black Caribbean boys, remains a matter of concern, this finding is of some relevance.

“Second, is the problem of over-testing. It is argued that pupils are subjected to too many written tests, and that some should be replaced by teacher assessments. The results here suggest that this might be severely detrimental to the recorded achievements of children from poor families and for children from some ethnic minorities.

For example, in English, using teacher assessment instead of the Key Stage test decreases the proportion of students achieving at least the expected level of attainment by 5.6 percentage points for Black Caribbean pupils, 6.4 for Black African pupils, 4.6 for Indian, 7.0 for Pakistani, 6.9 for Bangladeshi and 4.1 for Chinese,  compared with 3.3 for White pupils.

This means the use of assessment rather than testing may increase attainment gaps between ethnic groups later in academic life.

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