OPINION: The A Level exam algorithm stole my future from me

Tuesday, 25 August 2020 16:00 GMT

A level students hold placards as they protest outside the Department for Education, amid the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in London, Britain, August 16, 2020. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

I received a scholarship to study medicine at one of the best universities in the world, then an algorithm stole that chance from me

Today, Sally Collier, the chief Ofqual regulator has quit after weeks of controversy around exam results which saw me and many more like me lose out on grades and university places because of an algorithm they designed. The government made a U-turn and now Sally Collier has quit, but that does nothing for me. That won’t bring back my grades, or my university place.

When I woke up on the morning of August 13th and found out my A Level results I was in shock.

After finding out that I had received a BBC grade after being predicted for A*A*A, I had to stay at home for an hour trying to process the situation before I could even go into school.

I had originally applied to study medicine at four universities, the University of Cambridge, Imperial College London, University College London and the University of Brighton. Not only was I offered an interview at all four universities, but I walked out at the end of the medical admission process with an offer from Imperial and an academic scholarship. The first in my family to apply to university and a young, Black carer, I had surpassed expectations and could study without worrying about the financial burden.

But that morning, an algorithm stripped that offer away from me. Even my safety net offer at King’s College London had been taken back. Why?

It’s an algorithm inside an algorithm.

Teachers were asked to submit to exam boards the grades they thought each student would have achieved, and to rank their pupils in order. These results were then strictly moderated to fit the historical profile of the school to determine whether the teachers’ grades matched previous years or were more severe or generous than expected. If one A* had been produced last year, only one A* was to be produced this year.

But it’s not my fault not many people got As or A*s last year. They’ve given us bad grades to fit this historical performance from the school. How is that fair? I just can’t believe it. My achievements have been taken away from me.

And I am not the only one.

BAME students like me have been impacted significantly more by this algorithm, because we’re essentially in a more disadvantaged situation. There’s a higher proportion of BAME students in ‘bad’ postcodes who go to schools which don’t perform as well, and so when moderated by historical profiles, BAME students will suffer more because teachers can’t give them the grades they deserve, despite their academic potential.

Unsurprisingly, the model was found to have lowered the grades of almost 40% of students, and after days of criticism, student protests and stories like mine, the government has admitted their mistake and made a U-turn. But for many students, it has come too late. Even after the review, my grades only went to BBB. The U-turn hasn’t benefitted us.

I’ve had to balance work placements, volunteering, the BioMedical Admissions Test, the UK Clinical Aptitude Test, medical interviews along with mock exams which I’m being graded on with other students who haven’t had to do any of that, it’s not even a fair comparison. It’s not a fair comparison in the slightest and that’s the case for so many other students. I don’t believe I’m in this situation.

When the algorithm decided my grades, my role as a young carer, which significantly impacts my grades and mock exams, wasn’t taken into account. The algorithm didn’t care that I am the first in my family to apply for university. I just feel like all of my diligence and determination in earning an offer has been thrown down the toilet by a flawed system.

Because of this unfair system, I’m now a gap year student facing the harsh reality of having to redo the entire medical admissions process, including interviews, admissions tests, volunteering, work experience and redoing the exams, all with the chance of not getting an offer at the end of it.

I wake up and I think, the whole year I’m going to have to sit here and go on an emotional rollercoaster while my friends have fun because they were given good grades. It’s daunting, honestly.

The algorithm used to assess our grades has exacerbated inequalities already rife in Britain. It has ripped an education away from a whole generation. And it has disproportionately disadvantaged people like me who dared to try and beat the odds.


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