The idea of students receiving predicted grades in light of the exam cancellations has been thought by many to be problematic, as it is feared that BAME students are more likely to have their grades under-predicted.
My personal career trajectory is reflective of this debate. As a British Muslim woman of Kashmiri heritage, born and raised in one of the most disadvantaged constituencies in the UK, state-educated, and from a working class background, I was told by my sixth form careers advisor I would not be accepted by any university.
Instead, I went on to secure a place at Magdalen College, Oxford, and continued to study at postgraduate level, completing an MA and a PhD. Along the way, I received a scholarship to Stanford during my undergraduate degree, and completed the final year of my PhD at Yale.
All of this was possible primarily because I refused to believe what teachers predicted for me. My self-belief and awareness of my own potential regardless of whether others saw this or believed in it, was greater than the odds.
For many BAME students and young people, it is this potential and determination to succeed that cannot be captured by a grade prediction. However, a grade prediction can and does hold the power to further structurally limit equality of and access to opportunities, perpetuating a viscous and unbreakable cycle. This cycle is heightened perhaps more than ever before as a result of the exam cancellations due to the coronavirus pandemic, and thus more BAME students are at greater risk than ever before to be plunged into futures that will be shaped by grade under-predictions. We must get this right, as it is not only about predicting grades, but rather, predicting futures.
As a result of this, the Equality Act Review, which I founded in 2018, conducted a study exploring concerns around grade predictions in partnership with Afzal Khan MP. The survey was live between April and May 2020 during which time we received over 800 responses. Today we published our findings as a report titled “Predicting Futures: Analysing Students Concerns Amidst Coronavirus Exam Cancellations.” Our study revealed 85% of all respondents were from BAME backgrounds, 80% were concerned about their grades being predicted, and while concerns for bias around BAME identity were at 23%, other forms of bias such as bad behaviour, favouritism, social class, learning style, islamophobia, and mitigating circumstances were highlighted. The current grade predictions system does not account for any of these forms of bias.
In our report we detail both statistical analysis and qualitative extracts from survey respondents. One parent submitted: “My child has lost three members of his family during mock exams. His predicted grades went down. He has only just got started to improve with the help of therapy. Unfortunately, the exam boards don’t see grieving as an excuse.”
Another student, who expressed concerns about islamophobia, wrote: “Teachers know my Muslim name whereas the exams are marked anonymously so I’m being marked for my ability not my religion.”
There was also severe concern for learning style with over half of all concerns (50.9%) relating to the way in which students processed information and prepared for their examinations.
One parent wrote: “My child was very laid back when he did his mocks in January but when he got the results (which were disappointing) he studied hard from January all the way to the start of the lockdown. I tested him with a past paper and all I can say is he did astonishing. He went from grade 2s to grade 8s. This is why predicting a child using previous work is totally wrong.”
Of respondents who stated mitigating circumstances to be a form of bias, over 50% stated health concerns, and particularly mental health to be a major concern. One student told us: “I’m transgender. I’ve been out to the school for years but some teachers still aren’t very accepting. I’m also worried that I won’t get my fair grade because I’ve suffered mental health issues in the past. The mock exams are helping our teachers with grades but the past two mocks have been after I attempted to take my life. Therefore I didn’t do my best.”
One participant shared with us an email from their school, which said the following: “We have submitted with integrity based on an honest view of what students might have achieved…but the grades are not the grades that we submit and they will not be fair or right in some cases.”
With schools themselves admitting grades will not be fair, a grade prediction then, can and does hold the power to further structurally limit equality of and access to opportunities, perpetuating a viscous and unbreakable cycle. This cycle is heightened perhaps more than ever before as a result the coronavirus pandemic. More BAME students are at greater risk than ever before to be plunged into futures that will be shaped by grade under-predictions. We must get this right, as it is not only about predicting grades, but rather, predicting futures. We must protect the futures of all students and young people, allowing each and every one of them the best start despite the current global pandemic. We owe that to our youth.
In order to protect the futures of our young people, our report makes key recommendations. These include unconscious bias training for teachers, and advise to schools and exam boards on how to account for mitigating circumstances. We suggest sending out a form to all students providing them with the opportunity to declare any such circumstances that negatively impacted them, and to invite all GCSE and A-level students to sit an online test that works out their learning style, and for these scores to be applied to the predicted grades. The report also suggests that a BAME index should be devised and applied to all predicted grades for students from these backgrounds. These measures will go a long way in minimising the risk to the widening attainment gaps that are likely in these unprecedented times.
Dr Suriyah Bi currently teaches at SOAS University of London and is the founder and CEO of the Equality Act Review.
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