The exam grading system is still riddled with flaws, explains Dr Suriyah Bi

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The Government’s ‘A’ Level grading U-turn on Monday, in combination with the decision to pull BTec results last night, has been a desperate attempt to recover the mishandling of a Coronavirus-imposed crisis. But, for thousands of students, the damage has already been done.

A vast number of young people have lost out on their university offers, or are at least in a state of perilous limbo. Over the past week, at the Equality Act Review – a campaign that aims to update UK discrimination legislation – we have dealt with hundreds of students who were downgraded by the Government’s algorithm and, even despite now being able to use teacher grades, have been rejected for their chosen courses.

The Government has passed the buck to universities and, in turn, many academic institutions have been unwilling to budge in the face of student desperation.

Speaking to universities directly, we have learnt that many were unprepared for the Government’s retrospective decision to shift from algorithm assessments to teacher grading. Ultimately, unless it becomes mandatory for universities to increase the number of students on their programmes, the announcement from Education Secretary Gavin Williamson is simply a PR stunt.

This is compounded for a number of private candidates, invisible throughout this process, who have never been given grade predictions. These are for example students who have formally left school but are resitting exams – often because they suffered a personal tragedy during the previous school year.

There has also been no clear guidance for BTec students, who were also downgraded and missed out on university offers as a result. Grades for GCSE BTec students were pulled late yesterday, meaning that many students won’t receive their grades today as planned.

Inequality Without the Algorithm

What’s more, the problem caused by the algorithm – the suppression of student grades from poorer areas – hasn’t really gone away.

The Equality Act Review’s study in partnership with Afzal Khan MP, ‘Predicting Futures’, explores the initial process of teacher predictions. The study collected over 800 responses, of which 85% were people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, and more than 80% were concerned about their grades being under-predicted, due to structural bias.

Respondents highlighted a plethora of factors they were worried would give rise to bias, including: bad behaviour, favouritism, racism, Islamophobia, learning style, mitigating circumstances, health conditions – none of which have been accounted for by the Government, despite our group presenting officials with robust data.

Moreover, many teacher predictions factored in the past performance of their school, thus repeating the bias of Williamson’s algorithm. This cannot be classified as a U-turn, so long as we’re heading for outcomes that are equally as problematic.

If the U-turn is to live up to its label, the (free) grade appeals process must be reinstated, to allow students to challenge unfair teacher predicted grades. For those who cannot gain entry into their chosen courses and clearing is also not available – which is inevitable – it is important they do not lose out on a year, as this will translate into a wasted year for less-privileged students, compounding the effect of grade suppression.

This complicated web of poor decision-making and failure has entrapped the most disadvantaged students, stifling the aspirations of a whole swathe of young people. In our letter to Gavin Williamson sent on Monday evening, we strongly suggested for the Government to introduce a one-year programme at universities, which includes industry placements and skills workshops, so that young people can continue their personal and professional development while they apply to university the following academic year. It is paramount that this be a certified course widely recognised by employers and educational institutes, to ensure future educational and employment prospects can be accessed.

Without this intervention, the gap between the rich and the poor will widen. The Government must introduce mechanisms that prevent the widening of inequality. If not, it will perpetuate for decades to come. We must ensure that no young person falls through the cracks. 

Dr Suriyah Bi is Founder and CEO of the Equality Act Review and also a Lecturer at SOAS, University of London.


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