What the A-level debacle teaches us about algorithms and government

Students protest the government’s handling of their exam results. Photo: Isabel Infantes/EMPICS Entertainment

In the face of overwhelming public pressure and looming legal action, the government last week scrapped its algorithm for calculating A-level grades. This resolved pressing concerns about the algorithm’s accuracy and fairness, even if it also created fresh problems for students and universities. But algorithms will continue to play a growing role in public sector decision-making in the UK, across almost all areas and levels of government. It is therefore essential to learn the lessons of this debacle so that history is not repeated.

Much of the A-level controversy focused on substantive issues around how the algorithm operated. For example, was the government right to calculate grades based principally on a school’s historical results rather than a student’s academic performance, and to apply the algorithm only to cohorts of a certain size? These are critically important questions.

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Mutant Algorithms Are Coming for Your Education

(Bloomberg Opinion) — Bad algorithms have been causing a lot of trouble lately. One, designed to supplant exam scores, blew the college prospects of untold numbers of students attending International Baccalaureate schools around the world. Then another did the same for even more students in lieu of the U.K.’s high-stakes “A-level” exams, prompting Prime Minister Boris Johnson to call it a “mutant” and ultimately use human-assigned grades instead.

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Actually, I would argue that pretty much all algorithms are mutants. People just haven’t noticed yet.

The foibles of algorithms usually go unseen and undiscussed, because people lack the information and power they need to recognize and address them. When, for example, computers issue scores that decide how much people pay for mortgage loans or insurance policies, or who gets a job, the victims of mistakes typically don’t know what’s going on. Often, nobody even tells them their score, let

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