Assessment and Algorithms

The A-Level examination crisis has been a disaster for so many young people. This really is the first entry to many careers and I would not be surprised if there was real resentment and anger to what has happened. In the end, it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks of your ability in March, it’s when you do those exams in June that you prove what you can do. For my Maths A-level many moons ago I got a D in my mock just before the Easter Holidays. It was fair and it was accurate and it was a good indicator of my ability. But then I worked incredibly hard, I did every single past paper for the past twelve years, I asked for help from friends and teachers, I did not go out in the Easter Holidays and I worked till midnight many nights. And I got an A. And that was fair and accurate and a good indicator of my ability. The difference was I worked crazy hard. These students have not had that opportunity and it is so unfair that their grade is based on an algorithm on how other people worked in the past at their school or college. And that is unfair, even if it is an accurate predictor. Algorithms should not determine your life.

Some people are commenting that if we went back to the old modular examinations then we wouldn’t have had this problem. But there were two main reasons that we moved on from modular assessment. Firstly, coursework was getting gamed especially from overseas and those unscrupulous students with big bank balances. A whole industry of people writing essays for you and tutors doing coursework were undermining the system. Secondly, a modular system doesn’t always lead to good learning – some people like myself take a bit longer to learn things but it all comes together at the end after a lot of work and practice.

Like in my previous post, the answer I believe was to postpone everything just like they did in China with the gaokao. Most of the A-Levels courses had already been completed by March. All we needed to do was give students a bit more time and then complete their examinations normally. If you can’t socially distance an examination there is no hope for us all. You would then instruct universities to start a month later and finish a month later. It was not a massive problem in China and I don’t think it would have been as hard as we think for the A-Levels.

What will probably happen is many students taking a year out so they can retake in October which is going to cause chaos for universities in the next few years with less people going now and then a massive spike in years to come. The government will be under huge pressure to reform the examination system so we will probably see more chaos for schools, as every time government reform the system it has created chaos. And the annoying thing is that all of this could have been avoided. I guess we didn’t know how long the pandemic would be so cancelling seemed more sensible to postponing. But I think it was the easy option and now we are suffering the consequences of students not being able to progress because they were not given the opportunity to prove what they really were capable of. There is no point of an examination system where students do not take an exam. Our students deserve better and no-one wants their mind to be replaced by an algorithm taking other people’s minds into consideration. It’s not human.

What a mess.