The Inequity of Exams

How our assessment system perpetuatates harmful stereotypes about disadvantaged groups

Rachel Macfarlane Director of Education Services, Herts for Learning

As January becomes February, and Plan B restrictions are lifted by the government, Covid rampages through schools in many parts of the country. 150 outbreaks in schools and settings in my authority (Hertfordshire) last week became 390 this week. One secondary head reported 27 staff off school. ASCL’s leader, Geoff Barton, spoke in his address to members on 28th January 2022 of the exhaustion and worry of heads who have a third of their cohort absent, who are watching, powerless and anxious, the disruption to teaching for exam cohorts and are describing the students as ‘scared’.

The government is determined that exams will go ahead as usual this summer, and that KS4 performance tables will be reinstated after a two-year hiatus, regardless of the huge inequities in terms of Covid disruption to education across the country. Heads previously convinced that exams are the fairest way of assessing our young people’s skills and knowledge are increasingly not so sure.

Summative, standardised tests have their place, of course, and are useful for assessing certain types of knowledge. But as the sole method of measuring a learner’s strengths after 12 or 14 years of formal education, high stakes, time-bound, written exams, even in a non-pandemic environment, are wholly inadequate and inequitable. And the government performance tables that report exam outcomes and show attainment trends and comparisons by sub-groups, are equally problematic.

The list of pupil groups that are disadvantaged by high stress exams is a long one and includes: dyslexics (who find it hard to write about what they know and would be much better served if they could talk about or show their learning), young people with poor mental health (who crumble and under-perform in the pressurised exam scenario), those with EAL (who get tripped up by the exam rubric), those from economically challenged and minority ethnic backgrounds (who frequently fail to recognise and connect with the cultural references in exam questions), learners with autism (who may interpret instructions literally and lose marks accordingly), and anyone who lacks the financial means to benefit from personal tutoring and cramming.

To consider some of the hidden inequities of exams, let’s look at one particular sub-group which, year after year, underperforms in GCSE exams – our Black students. The 2020 EPI report into Education in England stated that ‘Since 2011, the gap between pupils from Black and White British backgrounds has increased in the order of 60-70 per cent’ (Hutchinson et al (2020:32)) with a ‘widening of the gap by three months (77 per cent) for pupils from Any Other Black Background and by 4.4 months (68 per cent) for Black Caribbean pupils’ (2020:20). Only Black African students achieved in line with their White counterparts at GCSE in 2019. In Hertfordshire we saw similar gaps in 2019: the Attainment 8 score for White pupils was 50.4, compared to 42.4 for Black Caribbean students and 42.7 for White and Black Caribbean students.

There could be many reasons accounting for the attainment gap between White learners and their peers from particular minority ethnic groups, and different factors will be at play in each school and within each cohort. But what if the high stakes, high pressure exams themselves were a cause of inequitable performance?

In Whistling Vivaldi, social psychologist Claude M. Steele argues just that, based on a range of experiments conducted at Michigan and Stanford universities. He was interested in the effects on Black students of being a minority in predominantly White cohorts (as are most children of colour in UK schools, and certainly in the authority in which I work). He found that they experienced a significant pressure from negative stereotyping and that this manifested markedly when they were required to perform in high stakes tests, but not when they saw their assessment as low stakes. Far from their attainment being depressed by ‘poor prior schooling, distressed communities, …possible lack of family support…and so on’, ‘the only thing depressing their performance…was the pressure of the negative stereotype – the risk of confirming it… When the pressure was removed… they performed at the top of their skill level.’ (2011:57-58)

This would suggest that, far from exams producing fair and equitable assessment conditions for all, ‘standardised testing rooms…though seemingly the same for everybody, are, in fact, different places for different people. Depending on their group identity, different people would simply have different things to contend with in these places – different stereotype threats, different ambiguities about how to interpret their experience, different goals and preoccupations.’ (2011:60)

And what if the gaps that we have seen growing over the past decade, and are reported in government performance tables, are contributing to racist stereotypes and limiting assumptions about Black students? In How to be an Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi reflects on how his peers who attended a ‘prep course’ (or cramming classes) always scored better in their exams than those who didn’t have access to the ‘information and training’ that such a resource offered (2019:101).

He goes on to argue that ‘The use of standardised tests to measure aptitude and intelligence is one of the most effective racist policies ever devised to degrade Black minds and legally exclude Black bodies. We degrade Black minds every time we speak of an “academic achievement gap” based on these numbers. The acceptance of an academic-achievement gap is just the latest method of reinforcing the oldest racist idea: Black intellectual inferiority…Implicit in this idea is that academic achievement, as measured by statistical instruments like test scores, is the only form of academic achievement.”

Here lies a real problem. By only measuring knowledge, skills, strengths and aptitudes through exams, and only reporting exam outcomes rather than other pupil achievements in performance tables, we are in danger of validating and perpetuating harmful stereotypes about disadvantaged groups, and especially youngsters affected by the intersection of two disadvantages, such as being Black and working-class.

So I have to admit to a feeling of deep unease as the weeks tick by and we get ever closer to the summer 2022 exam season. What will the results and performance tables show with regards to the outcomes of our most disadvantaged groups, and the inequities between their performance and that of their more privileged peers? How will the disproportionate effect of the pandemic on people of colour and those living in poverty exacerbate gaps already showing in 2019? How will that affect their self-esteem and morale? And how might the data lead to a strengthening of the unconscious biases and discrimination that they face in the future?

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