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 Covid-19 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 The grades awarded by the algorithm have been withdrawn in favor of teacher predictions, marking one of the biggest ever U-turns in U.K. education history.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.”