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The cancellation of 2021 exams mean teachers need “extensive guidance” on how to minimise the threat of unconscious bias while assessing pupils’ work

2021 assessment changes mean teachers need “extensive support” to avoid unconscious bias, experts urge

The cancellation of 2021 exams mean teachers need “extensive guidance” on how to minimise the threat of unconscious bias while assessing pupils’ work, experts have said.

Systems for judging the achievements of pupils this year also need a series of checks and balances to ensure fairness for those from all backgrounds, according to the researchers, who warn without this there is a risk of further exacerbating educational inequalities.

The advice is from Professor Lee Elliot Major from the University of Exeter and Andrew Eyles and Professor Stephen Machin from the London School of Economics in their response to the Ofqual/DfE consultation on how GCSE, AS and A level grades should be awarded in summer 2021.

Their response says Ofqual shouldredouble efforts” to provide extensive guidance for teachers and external moderators on unconscious bias.

They also recommend robust internal and external quality assurance processes, and that assessment outcomes should reflect in some way the different background characteristics of pupils. The experts say the use of common mini assessments set by exam boards could help ensure some consistency of marking across schools.

Professor Elliot Major, Professor Machin and Mr Eyles also argue that given extended school closures over the last year, pupils may now have to be offered the option of repeating a whole school year.. Taking this logic to its extreme, one possibility would be for all cohorts to start their school year again. In for the next phase of their research they will ascertain public attitudes to this option.

Professor Elliot Major said: “We will need to provide extensive guidance for teachers on how to minimise unconscious bias in assessments. With many pupils now missing half a year or more of learning, we must also consider the possibility of allowing pupils to repeat a whole school year.”

Professor Machin, director of the LSE's Centre for Economic Performance, said: “Learning losses have been felt disproportionately by poorer pupils during the closure of schools in the initial lockdown period in 2020. Extended school closures in early 2021 are likely to widen education inequality further. For assessments in 2021 to be fair for all pupils they will need to account for substantial differential learning loss.”

The consultation response says learning losses have been disproportionately felt by poorer pupils. The pandemic has exposed and exacerbated educational inequalities.

Research by the experts suggests that pupils could have experienced a range of learning losses of perhaps between three to six months during the academic year from 2020 closures, with disadvantaged pupils most likely to be falling behind.

Learning loss still occurred when schools reopened in September 2020. However, inequalities seen under school closure were no longer observed.

Professor Elliot Major, Professor Machin and Mr Eyles say the option of only assessing students on topics they have been able to cover during the crisis will not address all the factors causing unequal differential learning loss. Two pupils in the same class may have covered the same topics, but the progression, understanding and mastery of the topics will depend on the quality of their respective home learning environments.

Professor Elliot Major, Professor Machin and Mr Eyles also suggest universities, colleges and employers should be urged to consider lower offer grades for disadvantaged and other applicants who have faced particularly difficult circumstances during the crisis. Students should keep a log of any disruption so they can document this in their university applications.

Date: 1 February 2021

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