The exams regulator in England says it is alert to concerns about unconscious bias, as GCSE and A level pupils are awarded grades after their exams were cancelled due to the lockdown.
Ofqual says it is consulting on how to implement arrangements for the summer to help ensure students are fairly rewarded.
The Department for Education acknowledges on its website that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to have their grades under-predicted.
A letter to the education secretary, signed by a group of experts and academics and initiated by the race equality think-tank the Runnymede Trust, highlights concern that black and minority ethnic (BAME) pupils are disproportionately disadvantaged by any bias.
It warns steps need to be taken to ensure students from lower socio-economic backgrounds do not lose out on opportunities to attend more selective universities.
“We’re worried about the long term ramifications and we’re worried that a gross injustice will be done” says Zubaida Haque, the Runnymede Trust’s deputy director.
“If more checks and balances, in particular equality impact assessments, are not introduced into the predicted grading system then there will be long-standing impact”.
Ayman Farid was due to sit his A levels this summer and needs straight As to secure his place at University College London.
At his home in Coventry he has piles of revision notes he now no longer needs. With exams cancelled because of the coronavirus outbreak, like all A level students his grades will be determined by teacher assessment and exam boards looking at how pupils at his school have performed in the past.
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“It is really unsettling to have this taken out of my control,” he says.
“Where the fairness of standardised exams comes in is everyone is working towards the same goal and there’s no bias on the part of the teachers there.
“Now it fully depends on the student’s responsiveness to the teacher, the student’s ability to fully engage throughout the year and perhaps an inability to connect with teachers who are from a different background or a different race which might not be a deliberate thing it probably does surface at points.”
The Runnymede Trust cites research published in 2017 that found most A level predictions by teachers were wrong. In the majority of cases grades were over predicted.
However, among high achieving students, those from underprivileged backgrounds were more likely to have grades under-predicted than pupils of a similar ability but from more privileged families.
That study was carried out by Dr Gill Wynass from UCL who told Sky News: “I would urge the government to closely examine the grade predictions of students from under-represented backgrounds.
“It could be unconscious bias. It could simply be that those students are late performers and they do much better in exams than we potentially would expect them to.”
Ofqual told Sky News: “Our overriding priority is to ensure that all students are fairly rewarded for their hard work and we have developed clear guidance setting out how schools and colleges should make objective, evidence-based, judgements of student performance.
“We are alert to concerns that unconscious bias could influence the grades schools and colleges might have expected their students to have achieved in the exams and assessments, and we have separately published a review of the research literature on bias in teacher assessments.
“We are consulting on how we implement the exceptional arrangements this summer, including on any equality impacts, and will take account of any issues raised.
“Our consultation also includes aspects of our standardisation model which may be able to provide further safeguards in this area and, so far as is possible, help ensure that students are not advantaged or disadvantaged by this approach.”