UK government drops exam grading algorithm in the face of public anger

By on 18/08/2020
The botched system was implemented after schools and colleges closed and students were unable to sit their A-level exams due to the coronavirus pandemic

The UK government has been forced to overturn exam results produced by an algorithm, reverting to awarding grades based on teacher assessments, after large numbers of unjust results generated huge anger among parents, students and MPs. The decision comes days after hundreds of thousands of teenagers in England had their marks downgraded and missed out on places at their chosen universities.

The botched system – which was implemented after students were unable to sit their A-level exams this year due to the coronavirus pandemic – demonstrates how poor algorithm-based decision-making can cause great political and social damage, and is likely to serve as a warning to governments using algorithms around the world.

In the education system, students spend two years between the ages of 16 and 18 studying for their A-levels – with would-be undergraduates aiming to hit admission grades offered by universities. After UK schools and colleges were shut in March and exams cancelled due to COVID-19, it was announced that grades would be awarded based on a formula.

The Department for Education and exams watchdog Ofqual developed an algorithm to produce these grades, drawing on the results of ‘mock’ exams, teachers’ assessments, and schools’ prior grades. Aware that teachers’ assessments tend to be optimistic and keen to avoid ‘grade inflation’, they ensured that average scores would not rise substantially across the country. But the mechanism for downgrading results contained flaws that resulted in clear injustices, creating a huge headache for the government ­– which is facing a backlash from many of its own MPs as well as the Opposition.

For example, students who had good mock and teacher assessment results from poorly-performing schools were often severely downgraded, with some seeing predicted A*s dropping to fail grades, in order to ensure that schools’ performance remained steady year-on-year. But the downgrading mechanism was not applied to schools with small cohorts of pupils, because the small quantities of data from previous years provided an inadequate sample size on which to make robust judgements: this favoured private schools, which have much smaller class sizes.

As a result, when the results were released on 13 August, the proportion of private school pupils awarded top grades had increased by more than double that of state school pupils. With 40% of teacher-assessed grades downgraded by Ofqual’s algorithm, thousands of stories of individual injustices emerged – rapidly increasing the pressure on government to drop the system.

Warnings ignored

The shambles unfolded despite MPs on the Commons Educations Committee warning in their report on the ‘calculated grades system’ last month that disadvantaged and black, Asian and minority ethic pupils could be at risk of missing out on the grades they deserved due to unconscious bias in the moderating system.

“These outcomes are not surprising – it is well established that the use of algorithms to score and predict creates risks that existing social biases and inequalities will become exacerbated and entrenched,” Carly Kind, director of the Ada Lovelace Institute, an independent research body that works to ensure the use of data and artificial intelligence enhances individual and social wellbeing, told The Telegraph.

Prime minister Boris Johnson insisted the Ofqual system had produced a “robust” and “dependable” set of grades, and said students who were unhappy with their results could appeal or sit exams this autumn. However, just four days later on 17 August, it was announced that A-level students in England whose marks had been downgraded would be given the higher grades estimated by their teachers. GCSE results for 16-year-old school-leavers, which are due to come out on Thursday, will also now be teacher-assessed.  

Similar u-turns have also been made by the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Painful fall-out

While students awarded higher teacher-assessed grades will have the opportunity to ask universities that initially rejected them to reconsider, with many institutions filling places last week, there is no certainty every student will get their place.

UK education secretary Gavin Williamson apologised for the distress caused and admitted that students and parents had been affected by “significant inconsistencies” in the grading process. He claimed he had only discovered the potential unfairness when Ofqual released details of the algorithm two days after the exam results were released. But in fact these were published on the same day as the exam results, and commentators expressed amazement that the education secretary had not examined the system before publishing the results. A spokesperson from Ofqual said the model had been “extensively tested” to ensure students would receive “the fairest most accurate results”, the Independent reported.

Williamson is now facing calls for his resignation, while Tory minister Nick Boles predicted that Johnson “won’t get rid of him just yet. He needs him to take the rap for GCSE results and any chaos that arises when schools re-open. But there will be a new education secretary this autumn.”

Williamson was previously sacked by former PM Theresa May after a Cabinet Office inquiry indicated that he had leaked information from a National Security Council meeting: he subsequently swore on his children’s lives that he had not been responsible, Sky News reported, but was told by May that she had “compelling evidence” of his guilt.

In a bid to avoid similar algorithm traps, some governments are considering ways to ensure that algorithm use by government departments and agencies is fair and transparent. Earlier this month, New Zealand produced a set of standards on government algorithm use designed to improve data accountability, in what it claims is a world first.

Public Health England to be replaced

In other UK news, it was announced on 18 August that Public Health England (PHE) – an executive agency of the Department of Health and Social Care, whose mission is to protect and improve the nation’s health and wellbeing and reduce health inequalities – will be replaced by a new body focused on preparing for threats such as pandemics.

It is understood the new health protection agency, the National Institute for Health Protection (NIHP), will be modelled on Germany’s Robert Koch Institute which combats infectious diseases.

Baroness Dido Harding, who runs NHS Test and Trace in England, will be the interim chief of NIHP. The test and trace system is facing growing criticism over inadequate performance, and moves are underway to connect it to local authorities’ public health teams. It was also unveiled in June that Harding’s Conservative MP and former minister husband, John Penrose, is on the advisory board of 1828, a group calling for the NHS to be scrapped and replaced by an insurance system. Shadow health secretary Justin Madders said in a tweet that there had been “absolutely no transparency or accountability” in Harding’s appointment.

The Liberal Democrat party accused the government of blaming PHE – which is directly accountable to ministers – for its own failures in responding to the coronavirus crisis, while medical professors have voiced concern over PHE’s abolition, calling the agencies’ experts “irreplaceable”.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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