Assessment and race inequality

{Warning: for those colleagues who are teachers in schools or who teach teachers. My thoughts here are in no way a criticisms of individuals but rather a critique of the system that allows inequality to exist and seems incapable of changing these inequalities}

I had a very interesting lunch time debate about attainment with colleagues on my course. I think my argument was about how inequality (I was mainly talking about class / socioeconomic inequality) is maintained by selective schools (I am a fierce opponent of grammar schools and the 11+) because those most likely to get into the ‘best’ schools come from more privileged backgrounds, and are thus more likely to go to university and so on. The policy is maintained by arguments about how the system allows those talented children from poor backgrounds to escape from poor schooling and achieve their potential. It could also be argued that poor families that are willing to support their children’s education can get them into these selective schools and give them better life chances.

However, it seems to me like the justification for selective schooling is what Critical Race scholars would call a ‘contradiction-closing case’. As Delgado (1999 cited in Gillborn 2008:33) puts it, they ‘…allow business as usual to go on even more smoothly than before, because now we can point to the exceptional case and say, “See, our system is really fair and just. See what we just did for minorities or the poor.”

So after reflecting on the debate, I feel I am better able to understand my position. In the moment of discussion, I couldn’t articulate these thoughts as coherently. On further reading, I was even more disturbed to discover that selection within schools (or setting as we call it in UK secondary schooling) is just as divisive. Instead of setting reflecting the realities of student ability they actual help to create differences in ability. Those lucky enough to get in the top sets are pushed harder, get more attention. It is no wonder they do well. The higher the set, the higher the attainment. Although we must be clear here that being placed in a higher set does not necessarily reflect potential. Those at the bottom have lower expectations of them, they are not entered for the higher level exams and are trapped in terms of what they can actually achieve. It all becomes a teacher-fulfilling prophecy.

Even if you accept this analysis, you may still be wondering how does inequality come into the argument? Gillborn addresses this in relation to race. Sets are usually based on teacher assessment and tests. We like to think that test are objective but as we know from IQ testing, they can often be culturally biased. However, this is not the main point. Setting is still largely as a result of teacher decisions. Evidence suggests that teachers disproportionately rank Black students lower in terms of potential, attitude and motivation (Gillborn 2008) (not always deliberately but often unconsciously). The statistics back this up; black students are less likely than any other ethnic group to be placed in a top set.

And as I have already argued, being put into lower sets limits achievement. So we have the stark conclusion that unconscious bias on the part of teachers leads to Black students being placed in lower sets which leads to lower achievement and helps to create the attainment gap.

You might contest the logic of the argument or the strength of the evidence but it makes a convincing argument for me. However, it raises some interesting thoughts in the context of higher education. We don’t set. We usually get the more ‘able’ end of any cohort of students. Everyone on a course takes the same assessment tasks (no tiered exams). The whole argument seems unable to explain why the attainment gap exists in higher education. So what I need to find out is?

Are there other aspects of our assessment systems that create inequality?

Is it the teaching of the subject that leads to inequality?

Is there something about the university or the system that creates inequality?

I am at the very early stages but some possible answers are starting to emerge.

Some thoughts on Q1: It is common for students to have choice in what they research or write about in an assessment. Are students are put off ‘difficult’ topics by lecturers who prefer to stick to what they know? (remember here that lecturers are mainly white) So motivated students end up writing about topics they are not interested in.

Some thoughts on Q2 & 3: Are we unable in our teaching and our practices to confront racism and be open about it? Do White lecturers fear the consequences of opening that ‘can of worms’? The risk is that racism amongst some of our students get ignored and goes unchallenged.

As I said, early days, for me in thinking this through and finding the evidence.

Your thoughts welcome as this is a space for me to think through my emerging understanding and I feel this happens best when we engage in dialogue.

Gillborn, D. (2008) Racism and Education: Coincidence or Conspiracy? Routledge: Abingdon

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