On the recent A-Level results controversy

Anyone who has been following UK news recently will have heard that significant controversy has emerged following the announcement of A Level students’ results. For context, A Levels are the qualifications obtained by students in their final year of schooling, and entry to universities almost always depend on these results. Since exams couldn’t be taken this year, students were assessed very differently. Every year teachers give each student a predicted grade, known as a centre assessed grade (CAG). Each student’s final grades were then generated by an algorithm created by the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual). A problem arose, when 40 per cent of students were found to have grades lower than their CAGs. The biggest source of controversy was the fact that the algorithm lowered grades of smarter students in disadvantaged areas, whereas students in high performing schools, especially private schools, were more likely to have their grades increased.

The government later made a u-turn and allowed students to change their grades to their CAGs, if the CAGs were higher, however, it meant that many had risked missing out on their university places, this resulted in, among other things, a successful petition to Oxford University to reverse its decision to deny places to students who had their grades downgraded. However, the most notable story to come out of this was a student who had actually predicted the use of an algorithm in a similar context in an award-winning story she had written and had fallen victim to the algorithm herself.

Although I don’t tutor A Level students myself, as someone who has their own A Levels fresh in their memory and was lucky enough to have gone to very good schools through the sacrifices my parents made, the idea that my grades would have been increased not by my schools allowing me to tap into my own potential, but purely because of their reputation, is reprehensible. I’m very grateful to the schools and my parents for pushing me to realise my potential and making me the man I am today. Similarly, the thought that bright students in disadvantaged areas have taken a huge hit because of this algorithm is equally reprehensible.

Such a thing should not have been left to an algorithm. Many people have argued that teachers are often inclined to predict excessively high grades for their students and that the algorithm was a way to moderate these grades, however, the fact that the algorithm gave the school’s reputation so much sway in the decision making for each grade, in my opinion, goes far beyond simply negating any biases a teacher might have towards a student that would cause them to predict a higher grade and instead does potentially irreparable harm to those students’ mental health.

I’m glad to see now that common sense has prevailed now that students are able to choose their CAGs and I hope the vast majority of the potential damage to students’ future career has been averted. I think a lesson can be learned from this that such intangible things like a students’ brightness and potential can be calculated with a single algorithm, sometimes a more personal touch is needed when making such decisions. Perhaps this controversy could have been averted if this algorithm gave more sway to the teachers who know more about their students than any algorithm ever could.

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