With exam results day looming in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, young people across the nations will be nervous, just as they are every August, as they gear up to receive their GCSE and A Level grades. But unlike other years, this year’s cohort are receiving grades for exams they did not sit, bringing additional uncertainty and trepidation to the whole affair.
As the UK went into lockdown in March, schools were closed and GCSE and A Level exams (and their equivalents in Scotland) were cancelled, necessitating exam regulators across the four nations to devise a new system of grade allocation. The resulting solution will see grades delivered on 13th and 20th August based on teachers’ predictions, benchmarked against a school’s performance in previous year’s exams.
The new Coronavirus assessment regime does not involve a well-regulated process and the potential for bias is unprecedented, with teacher judgments playing a significant role in outcomes. Furthermore, the new system unfairly favours schools with a sustained level of high performance (such as private schools and grammar schools) over schools that are improving (and these are more likely to be comprehensives or secondary schools), as grades will be adjusted in line with historical school performance.
Equivalent exam results in Scotland were delivered on 4th August and while the overall pass rate had increased by several percentage points early analyses indicate that pupils from deprived areas had their outcomes downgraded more significantly than their better off counterparts, through a similar adjustment process to be used in the other nations.
The fallout from this across the UK could be significant as inherent biases in the schooling system could lead to already disadvantaged pupils receiving lower grades than they deserve. Working-class young people, young people from certain Black and minority ethnic backgrounds, and young people with disabilities may be particularly impacted by unconscious bias and misrecognition of ability. Previous research shows that these groups are more likely to have their performance underpredicted and are less likely to be able to successfully access appeals processes.
Teachers in schools have been asked to make judgments on their students’ anticipated exam performance if schooling had continued as usual. There are no hard and fast rules about what accounts for evidence in making these potentially life-changing decisions.
Judgments may entail a pupil’s previous performance in class and in formative assessments within the last couple of years; they may even consider the pupil’s whole history of performance whilst at the school, including consideration of minimum expected bands assigned to pupils from the beginning of secondary school on the basis of SAT performance in year 6. Whatever approach is taken it is going to involve fine grained judgments and subjective expectations.
When teachers have decided upon individual grades, they are then required to rank order their students within each grade boundary, based on their perceptions of the likelihood of each student to achieve that grade. Finally, the determinations are sent to OFQUAL/CCEA/QW who look at the overall profile of grades from each school and make adjustments in line with each schools’ historical performance in order to reproduce outcomes that align with previous years.
Individual Biases and System Biases
While there is no doubt that teachers want to see their pupils receive the highest possible exam results, there will be winners and losers in the makeshift assessment response, and the likely casualties will be the groups that are not traditionally favoured by the current structures of the education system. The new assessment approach brings with it the risk that inequalities will be further exacerbated and entrenched as young people from working-class and some minority ethnic backgrounds are more likely to experience the consequences of teachers’ unconscious bias and grade under-prediction (Sutton Trust 2020).
It can be difficult for teachers to separate pupils’ behaviour from expected performance, and their knowledge and understanding of a young person’s potential is often limited to a pupils’ willingness to perform and engage in the classroom. This leaves a lot of room to misread, misjudge and underestimate pupils who are challenged by the dominant culture of the formal classroom, which research shows, favours the white middle-classes.
The pupils who often surprise teachers the most with unexpectedly high exam performance tend to be those from disadvantaged backgrounds. It is difficult to conceive of the new system being able to take account of and attempt to mitigate these inequalities.
Beyond the issue of individual unconscious bias is the issue of system bias. The Coronavirus assessment response is designed to actually maintain the hierarchies of the system as it ensures that schools reproduce their performance of previous years and thus sustain their relational position (whether low or high) in the overall pecking order of school performance.
This is great news for private and grammar schools but unfairly penalises improving comprehensives through holding them in their place. It is well recognised that the English education system generates stark inequalities, and there is no evidence to suggest that these have been considered in devising the response to 2020 exam assessments. In effect we have been offered a solution that supports class and race based social reproduction.
When the results do come out, families will be in different positions to challenge grades if they are not what they expected the young person to achieve. Again, the issues here relate to class, race, and ethnicity. Put simply, if you are from a white middle-class background you are more likely to have the resources and knowledge to navigate the appeals system. Privileged parents are much more likely to distrust professional judgments, are more likely to feel entitled to the highest possible grades for their offspring, and are better equipped to push back against an unfavourable outcome.
The potential for further entrenchment of educational inequalities needs to be given consideration. OFQUAL have stated that if young people are not happy with the results that they receive, they can repeat the exams in the autumn term. This is not a viable solution given that many young people will have moved on to further study. It glosses over the legitimacy of the appeals against misjudgement by offering an unwanted and painful alternative in response to challenge. Moreover, there is no right of appeal from a school that is left feeling denigrated and short changed by an unfair moderation process.
Revised Approach to Assessment
The country is working hard to mitigate the impact of the Coronavirus and it is important that the well-being and futures of young people are considered as vital concerns. We do not know what the next year will bring for schools and if exams will be further impacted by outbreaks and lockdown. It is therefore, critical that approaches to assessment are repurposed to withstand the shock of the unknown.
The current all-or-nothing approach to assessment that sees a raft of exams taken solely at the end of year 11 or year 13 will not offer the fair approach that young people deserve. It is incumbent on the government to have new systems of assessment in place going into the next academic year so that young people are assessed fairly on their ongoing achievements with full knowledge and awareness of the process.
Discovering at the last minute that exams are cancelled and that class work is now forming the basis of assessment penalises those who may have been saving their academic energy for exam performance. Pupils at the very least deserve to know the rules of the game they are playing, not have the goal posts moved at the last minute. The shock to assessment processes caused by COVID-19 throws into sharp relief the problems of an approach that is wholly reliant on end of year performance.
Over the last decade the coursework element of both GCSE and A Level assessment in most subjects has been scrapped and curricula revised to be content heavy. Regardless of a global pandemic this form of assessment is regarded by educational experts as problematic from a social justice perspective in that it tends to favour white privileged males, and takes no account of the turbulence of teenage experience or the fact that some young people live in circumstances beyond their control that leave them more open to having an ‘off day’.
Unfortunately, the Corona Class of 2020 have been subjected to a form of agile decision-making that has not taken into account important issues of equality, which, come results day, rightly opens the door to appeals and legal action. Mistakes have been made and lessons need to be learned.
Nicola Ingram is Professor of Sociology of Education at Manchester Metropolitan University. She has published widely on issues of social class inequality in education and her recent books include: Working-Class Boys and Educational Success: Teenage Identities, Masculinities and Urban Schooling (Palgrave MacMillan 2018); Educational Choices, Aspirations and Transitions in Europe (Routledge 2018); Higher Education, Social Class and Social Mobility: the Degree Generation (Palgrave MacMillan 2016).