24 August 2020

A Feature, Not a Bug

Admission to university in the UK is driven by the "A-Level" exams, which have been canceled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Boris Johnson government came up with an algorithm driven alternative, which turned out to be so biased against students from poorer publicly funded schools that they had to withdraw it following massive protests.

This article details all of the problems with the process that was developed, but ignores the underlying issue, that it was not a good faith effort.

The Tories were explicitly looking at finding a way of favoring the inbred elites of British society while depriving less affluent, and less-white students fair access to the the UK's elite educational institutions:

When the UK first set out to find an alternative to school leaving qualifications, the premise seemed perfectly reasonable. Covid-19 had derailed any opportunity for students to take the exams in person, but the government still wanted a way to assess them for university admission decisions.

Chief among its concerns was an issue of fairness. Teachers had already made predictions of their students’ exam scores, but previous studies had shown that these could be biased on the basis of age, gender, and ethnicity. After a series of expert panels and consultations, Ofqual, the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation, turned to an algorithm. From there, things went horribly wrong.

Nearly 40% of students ended up receiving exam scores downgraded from their teachers’ predictions, threatening to cost them their university spots. Analysis of the algorithm also revealed that it had disproportionately hurt students from working-class and disadvantaged communities and inflated the scores of students from private schools. On August 16, hundreds chanted “F%$# the algorithm” in front of the UK's Department of Education building in London to protest the results. By the next day, Ofqual had reversed its decision. Students will now be awarded either their teacher’s predicted scores or the algorithm’s—whichever is higher.
(%$# mine)

The problem was not that education authorities failed, but that they over-succeeded.

If they had hit 10% or 20%, they would have gotten away with making higher education in the UK richer and whiter, and the students complaining would have been dismissed as ungrateful (insert race or class epithets here)s.


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