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Ofqual: bias against disadvantaged and SEN pupils ‘common’ in assessments

·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Photofusion/UIG via Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Photofusion/UIG via Getty Images

Teacher assessments are often biased against disadvantaged pupils and those with special educational needs (SEN), according to research by England’s exams regulator, Ofqual, that will add to concerns about grades this summer.

The findings were based on a review of existing research on bias in teacher assessment, intended to help inform and improve the quality of guidance for teachers assessing GCSE and A-level students this year in the absence of exams.

Ofqual found evidence of “a slight bias” in favour of girls and mixed evidence on ethnicity, but bias against disadvantaged pupils and those with SEN was “a common finding”.

The regulator said measures have been put in place to mitigate for the risk of bias in this year’s grades, but Labour says the research raises serious concerns about the government’s summer assessment process.

GCSE and A-level pupils will once again be awarded grades by their teachers this summer after the cancellation of exams for the second year running due to disruption caused by the Covid pandemic.

“Teachers urgently need support from the government to ensure fair, consistent grades are awarded for all students across subjects, schools and regions,” said the shadow education secretary, Kate Green, “but ministers are abdicating responsibility.”

She said: “The Conservatives’ chaotic mishandling of exam results last summer created huge amounts of stress, and pupils urgently need to know what steps will be taken to guard against inconsistent grading and ensure such disruption does not happen again.”

Ofqual said analysis of last year’s centre-assessed grades in England had found no evidence that students were systemically disadvantaged on the basis of particular protected characteristics or socioeconomic status.

“This is good news,” said Paul Newton, author of an Ofqual blog. “And, while the review we are publishing today reaches several conclusions, it doesn’t necessarily follow that there will be bias in teacher assessments this academic year.

Related: The Observer view on basing pupils' results on teacher assessment | Observer editorial

“It does, however, highlight the importance of having safeguards in place, including quality assurance arrangements.”

Ofqual is calling on teachers to discuss each judgment with colleagues, including special educational needs co-ordinators or SEN experts, and each grade must be signed off by at least two teachers to limit the risk of bias.

The regulator says each judgment should be based purely on evidence of how a student has performed, putting other factors like attitude or behaviour to one side, and teachers are asked to be aware of different kinds of unconscious cognitive biases that can compromise judgments, and think about strategies for minimising them.

“The literature that we drew upon was fairly limited in size, and it is possible that it might have been skewed to some extent by publication bias, whereby evidence of an effect occurring is more likely to get published than evidence of no effect,” the Ofqual blog said.

“So, it doesn’t necessarily follow that teacher-assessed grades will be biased in these ways this year. However, the literature does tell us that there is a risk of bias in teacher assessment and that is why it is so important that arrangements are in place this year to mitigate this risk.”

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