How a computer algorithm caused a grading crisis in British schools

Gavin Williamson, U.K. defence secretary, arrives for a weekly meeting of cabinet ministers at number 10 Downing Street in London, U.K., on Tuesday, April 23, 2019.
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Britain is in the throes of a nationwide grading debacle after an automated algorithm lowered the A-Level results of nearly 40% of students who could not sit exams due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

To determine each student’s results, the U.K. decided to use an algorithm that looked at their mock exam results, as well as their school’s track record in the exams. Lawmakers said the software would give students a “fairer” result after concluding teachers could potentially try to inflate their pupil’s grades.

But the model ended up favoring students from private schools and affluent areas, leaving high-achievers from free, state-schools disproportionately affected. Many students have had their university places revoked as a result of the downgraded exam results, and there have been protests as a result. 

There is no direct equivalent to A-level exams in the U.S. but these are the tests students in Britain take when they are aged 17-18, often to help them get into university, and are similar to SATs and PSATS. Some employers look at them when considering new applicants and they are widely viewed as the most important exams in British schools. 

U.K. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said he’s “incredibly sorry” for the exam distress and said his main priority now is to ensure students get fair results

The grades awarded by the algorithm have been withdrawn in favor of teacher predictions, marking one of the biggest ever U-turns in U.K. education history. The Department for Education said it is continuing to work with exam regulator Ofqual to try to deliver fair results for young people during this unprecedented time. 

But many students have already lost their places at their preferred university and the admissions process is now in chaos. Students that applied to Oxford and Cambridge were told they may have to wait a year before they can begin their courses after they successfully appealed against the results they were awarded. Oxford’s Worcester College said it would accept all students that it had made offers to regardless of their grades. 

The opposition Labour party described the algorithm as “unlawful” on Thursday, arguing that it breached anti-discrimination legislation as well as laws requiring it to uphold standards. 

Catherine Breslin, a machine learning consultant who used to work for Amazon, said: “Algorithms can bake in and surface the unfairness and discrimination of systems they’re automating.”

She added: “So while Ofqual’s algorithm was clearly the wrong way to go, and has caused a lot of anxiety up and down the country, perhaps this will lead to a re-evaluation of our exam system.”

Labour’s Shadow Communities and Local Government Secretary, Steve Reed, said on Wednesday the “fiasco” was far from over. “It was right that the Government U-turned on Monday, but thousands of families are still having to deal with the consequences,” Reed said.

“We need a cast iron guarantee from ministers that no student will lose out on their first choice because of government incompetence. And they must ensure all students have their final grades by the end of the week,” he continued.

“It beggars belief that students are still in limbo, with no clarity over their futures because of a mess the government created. Families deserve better than this.”

The opposition party now wants Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, who is facing calls to resign after the U-turn, to publish the legal advice he was given. Williamson is yet to say if he will resign or publish the legal advice. 

The Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) said on Tuesday it would conduct a review of the approach taken to develop the statistical models for awarding 2020 exam results.

“The review will seek to highlight learning from the challenges faced through these unprecedented circumstances,” the OSR said.

Teacher predictions 

This week, teacher predictions were also used to determine student’s results for their GCSEs, which most students in Britain take two years before their A-levels. Pass rates were up across the board and just over a quarter of students were awarded grade 7 or higher (equivalent to an A or an A* under the previous system). 

The debacle raises questions about how much governments should rely on algorithms that have a big impact on citizens.

Britain and other countries are increasingly using software to automate public services, with the hope of cutting costs and making processes more efficient.

Earlier this month, the British government pledged to stop using an algorithm when considering overseas visa applications after it received a legal complaint accusing discrimination.

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