Ethnic minority awarding gap ‘largely down to low exam grades’

Difference in scores given to white and non-white students largely disappeared in coursework, UCL study finds

August 4, 2021
Close-up shot of student hand holding pen and writing in notebook
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A significant proportion of the awarding gap between white and ethnic minority students may be explained in some subjects by low scores given to non-white students in exams, with the divide all but disappearing for coursework grades.

Research published in the journal eLife on 4 August examines the awarding gap on cell biology courses at UCL, in which the proportion of white undergraduates attaining first-class and upper-second class marks is typically 8 to 13 percentage points higher than the proportion of their black and ethnic minority classmates doing so.

Louise Cramer, an associate professor in UCL’s Laboratory for Molecular Cell Biology, found that the difference was derived largely from marks awarded for exams, there was a 13 percentage point gap between white first- and second-year white students and their ethnic minority peers, rising to nearly 17 percentage points for the third-year cohort.

In contrast, the gap in coursework grades was just 1 to 2 percentage points among first- and second-years, and 5 percentage points for final-year students.

The findings could have significant implications as vice-chancellors prioritise closing the awarding gap between white and ethnic minority students. In 2018-19, 81.4 per cent of white students across the UK got a first or a 2:1, compared with 68 per cent of ethnic minority students.

England’s sector regulator, the Office for Students, has set a target to eliminate the gap by 2030-31.

Dr Cramer told Times Higher Education that the awarding gaps were not the fault of ethnic minority students, and explained that her forthcoming research sought to tease out why they were given lower grades on exams.

“It’s either what the students have to do in the exam, or it’s the process of taking an exam per se,” she said. “There’s evidence that goes back at least a decade called stereotype threat: if minority ethnic students are anxious that they will be awarded lower scores than white students, then they don’t do as well.”

Other disciplines might find other causes behind the awarding gap depending on their assessment methods, Dr Cramer said, but she urged fellow scholars to adapt her research to examine awarding gaps in their own subjects.

Regardless, however, she said that diversifying curricula and assessment methods could only be a good thing.

“Increasing the diversity of the range of assessments is key, and we should think about increasing the diversity of question types on exams,” she said. “Different people have different ways of learning and have different strengths in different areas.”


Print headline: Ethnic minority awarding gap ‘turns on tests’

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Reader's comments (2)

In my grad school STEM class, whites are a distinct minority. Papers are mostly anonymised (unless students make mistakes in putting their name on their uploaded or work) so I don’t see how any one can be anxious about getting lower marks based on their ethnicity or race. Whilst there is a lot of leeway in language skills, a very small group of foreign students’ grasp of English is so poor that the exams are unintelligible. (This should be vetted at entry since presumably these same students are challenged by the course content as well). I thought anonymised exams were more the norm - with Moodle they are quite easy to administer, and they clearly give a greater sense of fairness. And it is really such a small hassle for a clear gain.
Since the objectives of teaching and education more broadly are to share/increase student's knowledge of subject matter, enhance their understandings of same and improve their ability to ally the acquired knowledge , all subject disciplines should include a practical component, assessed as 40% of final mark for each subject that constitute their major. This should be established as a policy position and implemented in all certificate, diploma, undergraduate and graduate level degree programs. When our tertiary level education is pursuing the proper objectives, then assessments will be fairer and serving their correct purposes also. When such repurposing is achieved them an assessment (not examination) review committee in all universities comprising members of each ethnic group to review the assessments of students.