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  • Writer's pictureSharon Chau

Who Loses in the Coronavirus Grading System?


  • The new grading system disadvantages ethnic minorities, less well-off students and girls as stereotypes may prevail

  • Teachers should be mindful of common biases when assigning grades


The coronavirus has caused schools across the world to shut down. Students who were expecting to take standardised examinations this summer are now unable to, and examination boards in the UK have decided to use students' past performance to determine their GCSE or A-Level grades. Teachers would have to rank their students and, in some instances, submit evidence of their written work, then the exam board would assign grades based on the students' performance and how the school has done in the past.

The current system of devising grades based on past performance and teachers’ perceptions of how well students will do is likely to disadvantage ethnic minority or poorer students. Teachers are prone to biases such as the familiarity bias, which means they are likely to feel closer to and subconsciously reward students who resemble them. Hence, given the prevalence of white teachers in schools, those of ethnic minority backgrounds might be disadvantaged. Evidence of racial bias is unfortunately extremely common. Famous experiments (eg. "Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal?" by M Bertrand) have been done showing how resumes with non-white sounding names fare worse even when everything else on the resume is identical. Another example is how African-American students have consistently been underestimated in their SAT scores, and teachers have been proven wrong time and time again by objective scores the students eventually get in the real exam. However, there is no such recourse mechanism for disadvantaged students in this set of GCSE or A-Level results. GCSE students would either have to retake exams in November, which will hinder their A-Level studies and make them waste precious time they could have spent on more advanced material, or they would have to accept the grades given and apply to university with less competitive results.

Another problem is how certain students might not perform as well in school but work very hard at home and are likely to excel. This method of using past performance to predict future outcomes is unreliable, especially as students had not expected their coursework or mocks to be taken into account and might not have performed at their best. Once at home, different students also have different methods of working. Those who are more privileged get to self-isolate in their rooms, with a study room and bathroom to themselves and a home equipped with exercise equipment and a garden. They are unlikely to be much affected by this, and may even become more productive when working by themselves. However, other students might have to share a small space with their parents, have to live in a noisy environment, be stuck home without space or methods to exercise, or might have to help more with chores. This means that they are less likely to tune in to online lessons or find it harder to concentrate on work at home. School, for many, could be a respite from what’s going on at home, especially when everything is relatively equal at school - everyone wears the same uniform, goes to the same classes and has similar schedules. Having to stay home and work by oneself without other equalising factors will only expose the stark material differences students face, and worsen teachers' perceptions of how hard certain students are working.

Girls might also be disadvantaged when teachers decide what grades ought to be given. Although there is a stereotype of girls being more conscientious and hardworking, girls are also less likely to put their hands up in lessons. Less classroom participation might mean that teachers with a class of thirty have less of a good impression of the student, giving her worse grades or ranking her lower than she might deserve. In addition, the “hardworking” label also comes with negative connotations - teachers may believe that girls are less prone to “natural brilliance“ than boys and hence believe they have less capacity for growth. In report cards, boys are more likely to have comments like "he is brilliant, but can afford to work a bit harder", and girls are more likely to have comments like "she works admirably hard, but her talents may lie elsewhere". This has been empirically proven by how many more parents search for whether their sons are geniuses than whether their daughters are geniuses, confirming how boys are seen to have more potential to improve. Given teachers are supposed to take this into account when ranking students, this could be a stumbling block for many equally gifted girls. Besides, a gender skew might also happen with different subjects based on the stereotype that girls are better in humanities subjects and boys are better in sciences. At GCSE level, worse results could mean girls are discouraged from applying for STEM subjects or might not meet minimum requirements to do them at university, which can potentially have long-term harms.

All this is not to accuse all teachers of being intentionally biased or even evil in assigning grades. The vast majority of teachers want the best for all their students and strive to be as fair as possible - some might even actively correct for stereotypes or help students they know to be less advantaged. However, examination boards and teachers ought to be mindful of these biases when giving out grades to students. When assigning rankings, teachers could ask themselves: is this boy really likely to work hard prior to GCSEs, or am I unfairly rewarding him over a girl because he seems more confident and talented in lessons? Being aware of possible biases and asking uncomfortable questions is the first step in making this system fairer, especially for those who are the most disadvantaged.


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