Graded by an Algorithm

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Exam results were a big topic in my family last summer — with my nephew attempting to get the grades he needed to go to university. Like everything in 2020, things had changed due to Covid-19, and instead of sitting exams, British students were told that their results, and futures, were being decided by an algorithm. For some, including my nephew, this led to grades they were not expecting. 

For The Guardian, Tom Lamont explores the drama that unfolded on results day in August 2020, when perhaps the first algorithm in the history of computer science was “condemned on the front page of every major British newspaper.” Algorithms surround us in all parts of life, “influencing what interest rates we’re offered, how long we’ll wait for hip surgery, when’s ideal for the next Justin Bieber album to drop,” but they had not previously graded students on this scale. The attempt was an unmitigated disaster, and in the wake of “bright students in historically low-achieving schools tumbling, sometimes in great, cliff-edge drops of two or three grades” it was only a few days before the government revoked the whole system, asking teachers to grade their pupils instead.

For some seeking university places it was too late, and Lamont exposes the people damned by the code in the agonizing journey of Josiah Elleston-Burrell — who is fighting for his place to study architecture at UCL. Josiah’s dedication to his dream is inspiring, and this article immerses you in his personal grades drama — and makes you fully invested in the outcome.

I was curious what would happen to this ambitious, dead-set young man, and we met up several times in 2019, usually before he began a shift at the Waitrose supermarket where he worked. One day, just off the Croydon train, Elleston-Burrell confessed to a daydream: switching platforms instead and carrying on into London in the direction of UCL’s architecture building. He could see the backpack he would carry. His outfit. The dangling lanyard with his shiny undergraduate ID.

On 16 August, after Roger Taylor acknowledged “a situation that was rapidly getting out of control”, a decision was made that the Approach-1 algorithm was by now so tarnished it would be better if they abandoned it. Elleston-Burrell was at work the next day, on 17 August, when he heard. Ofqual and the government had decided that every student in England would now receive the grades that were predicted by their teachers back in June. For some, this was good news. (In Oxford, that talented young English student got her A* after all.) Others were left stranded, their grades a lot better, but their places at university gone. When I got through to Elleston-Burrell that day, he was trying to brave it out, but he sounded glum. He kept repeating, dazedly, “I don’t even know, man.”

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