Academically able Black Caribbean pupils are less likely to be entered for higher-tier maths and science tests than White children with the same achievement record, a University of Warwick study has found.
The finding, which has emerged from an analysis of test data collected on more than 15,000 14-year-olds,was presented to the 2008 annual conference of the British Educational Research Association in Edinburgh.
The Warwick University study found that Black Caribbean, Pakistani, Black African and Bangladeshi pupils were all under-represented in entry to the higher tiers of the maths and science tests that pupils in England take at the age of 14.
Further investigation established that prior attainment at age 11 could explain why Pakistani, Black African and Bangladeshi pupils were less likely to be entered by their schools for the higher-tier tests at 14. However, the different test-entry pattern for Black Caribbean and White children could not be attributed to performance at 11. Neither could it be explained by a range of other factors such as social class, gender, maternal education, entitlement to free meals, home ownership, single-parent households, and the higher truancy and exclusion rates among Black Caribbean pupils.
Dr Steve Strand, author of the study, says: "After accounting for all measured factors the under-representation is specific to this one ethnic group and indicates that, all other things being equal, for every three White pupils entered for the higher tiers only two Black Caribbean pupils are entered."
Tiering in national tests is presumed to be more efficient and to offer a more positive experience to pupils, since they are only tested on a range of items that are closely matched to their current level of performance, as judged by their teachers. However, the Warwick University study suggests that this assessment practice has unintended consequences.
Dr Strand notes that pupils who are not entered for the higher tiers are unable to achieve the highest test scores. But he does not argue that this contributes directly to Black Caribbean pupils’ lower attainment and relatively poor progress in secondary school.
Instead, he says that it provides "a window into teacher expectations and other in-school factors such as institutional racism" that may play a part in understanding the attainment gap for Black Caribbeans.
"Research suggests that teachers’ judgments of students’ academic potential can be distorted by factors such as perceptions of their behaviour," says Dr Strand, who analysed data for 2004 gathered as part of the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England.
"Black Caribbean students may be disproportionately allocated to lower test tiers, not as a result of direct or conscious discrimination, but because teachers’ judgments of their academic potential are distorted by perceptions of their behaviour."
Dr Strand concludes that his study has implications for assessment policy in England. "Proposals to replace tiered papers with single level tests, currently being piloted, will give even greater emphasis to teachers’ judgments, since the tests will only be able to confirm the level teachers have entered pupls for, not indicate a higher level," he says. "These proposals may need to be reconsidered."
Podcast interview with Dr Strand on the Guardian's web site at:
1. The Longitudinal Study of Young People in England is a national, representive sample of more than 15,000 young people being tracked between the ages of 14 and 25. The study, which is managed by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, is designed to support analyses involving ethnic groups through sample boosts for the six largest minority groups: Black African, Black Caribbean, Bangladeshi, Indian, Pakistani and students of Mixed heritage. These boosts provide representative samples of the relevant sub-populations as a whole, rather than drawing disproportionately from areas or schools with high numbers of minority ethnic pupils. The achieved sample analysed by Dr Strand consisted of 15,570 pupils drawn from 658 schools.
2. Single level tests are now available in English reading, English writing and mathematics. They are meant to confirm the progress of key stage 2 (age 11) and 3 (age 14) pupils. Single level tests give teachers the flexibility to enter pupils for a test when they are considered to be working securely at a particular level rather than wait until the end of a key stage. Ten local authorities are involved in piloting the tests across more than 450 primary and secondary schools. The single level tests were taken in December 2007 and June 2008.
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