Why we should all be worried about school assessed grades

Much attention has been paid to grade inflation resulting from school assessed grades for this year’s GCSE and A-level pupils. But just as worthy of concern is grade deflation from teachers who simply don’t like a student.

How might favouritism negatively impact student grades? | Image courtesy of Studying-in-UK.org

In pre-pandemic days, teachers who opted to mark official exam papers could not examine those of students who attended the school at which they taught. And rightly so. Exam boards wanted to minimise any bias in the marking process — that is, avoid anything that might influence an examiner away from the marking criteria. Student names still appeared on the exam paper, which, as linguists know, do have an affect on the grading process. However, nothing sways a grade quite like a student’s relationship with a teacher. And I should know — I was a secondary school English teacher.

Despite beginning the school year earnestly and with an open mind, I always found some students more pleasant to work with than others. I might have easily characterised my students according to the Hogwarts house types. Hufflepuffs: those who were always kind, respectful and amiable but not destined for academic greatness. Slytherins: those who were exceedingly bright but conceited and arrogant (and whom, though reticent to admit it, I was actually always a bit frightened of). The Gryffindors: the brash and brazen kind with well-meaning intentions but who held vendettas against teachers. And the Ravenclaws: the stereotypical top-set kid — quiet, reflective and attentive to their work, but with whom I never really developed much of a relationship.

All other criteria set aside, you can imagine how I might be persuaded to mark based on instinct alone. I’d likely give the Hufflepuffs a few marks more than they deserve, the Slytherins, a few marks less, the Gryffindors…well I might ask them to mark their own work, and the Ravenclaws, surely no less than a Grade 8 (today’s equivalent of an A*), right? But herein lies the problem with teacher marking, the inherent bias that comes with knowing a student a little too well.

We can argue that moderation between teachers helps alleviate some of this favouritism. But as anyone who has ever worked in a school is all too keenly aware, no pupil is unknown to you. Yes, the staff do gossip about their students in the staff room, and the discussion can range from who’s in detention and for how long, to ‘safeguarding concerns’ — i.e. whose mum is now sleeping with the student’s grandad, who started what fight where, and even (and I cringe to write this) who’s lost their virginity and to whom. A school department office can feel much like a school playground.

However, before I vilify the profession and its actors too strongly, I hasten to add that teachers may have the students’ best intentions at heart, but working in the battlefield of an inner-city classroom means it’s easy to develop favourites. Nonetheless, our attitudes towards student behaviour shouldn’t influence student grades, whatever beliefs you may have about discipline and punishment.

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