COVID-19 has forced school administrators around the globe to make dramatic alterations. In England, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson cancelled the summer exam series and announced that an algorithm would be awarding grades to students that would have been taking the GSCEs and A-levels exams (Lightfoot 2020). Ofqual, England’s exam regulator, explained that their algorithm would assign grades using a standardized model that examined a combination of variables, including a student’s “teacher assessment, class ranking and the past performance of their schools” (Adams 2020).
This decision has not been made without controversy. Not only have experts warned that a system dependent upon teacher evaluations could likely hurt already disadvantaged students, but parents and students alike have started a grassroot movement in opposition to the algorithmic system.
One such concerned parent, Michael Bell, created a fundraising page in order to pay for the legal fees necessary to contest the system in court. Despite his daughter’s teachers predicting her to receive high marks in her subjects (“an A* and two A grades”), Bell worries that the Ofqual model could hurt his daughters’ university placement. Since her school has only given out C-grade marks (or below) to students taking her subjects within the past 3 years, there is reason to believe that the system might downgrade Lexie’s grades based on the school’s performance precedent (Lightfoot 2020). In this way, the system could discriminate those getting a good evaluation that attend schools or colleges with historically poor performances.
Amara Ahmad, an education lawyer, argues that Ofqual’s grade-prediction algorithm could disadvantage students of minority ethnic and low socioeconomic backgrounds (Lightfoot 2002). A variety of studies have demonstrated that stereotypes and implicit biases surrounding disadvantaged students often influence teacher assessments to the students’ detriment, ultimately creating faulty prediction systems (Weale and Batty 2020). While Ofqual has announced an appeal process to incorrect grade assignments, there are concerns that taking such an option would lead to students losing an entire year of schooling. Additionally, studies show that students of disadvantaged backgrounds rarely have the time or resources to delay their education and navigate complicated appeals processes (ibid).