What went wrong with the A-level algorithm? l FT

How ‘The Algorithm’ changed A-level results. The FT’s Chris Giles examines whether it was fair, and who was most affected. Read more at See if you get the FT for free as a student ( or start a £1 trial:

So why did the government through the regulator of quell decide to tweak the a-levels this year well essentially it was because they thought that teachers have been too optimistic or had inflated the grades and they want to keep a level grades the same standard every year the gold standard as they like to call them and if they hadn’t done that they looked at those

Grades that the teachers had submitted and they realized they were inflated very significantly and it would have meant that a levels were a different standard this year to other years some people think that doesn’t matter but the government thought it did matter and that’s why the computer algorithm got involved so how did the algorithm work well in the vast

Majority of cases of the regulator took information for each school and each subject in that school from the past from their performance in the past and then worked out a distribution of grades from a star at the top to unclassified at the bottom of what they thought this year’s crop of students would get they adjusted it up or down if this year’s students seemed

Better than previous years based on their gcse results but they then said right this school will get let’s say three a stars five a’s ten b’s six d’s two e’s and one u and then they just took the teacher rankings in that subject and said if you’re ranked one you’d get the a star and if you ranked at the bottom you’d get the you and the teacher grades for that

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School would have had no effect whatsoever it would have been done entirely on the distribution that offcoal said was the right distribution for that school and the rankings that the teachers had given so what’s unfair about this process well there are three i think big problems with the process the first is that it meant that outliers couldn’t be accounted for

In the system so if you were the brilliant student in a school that never had a student like you before you literally couldn’t get the top grades because the algorithm would not allow any top grades to be given for that school and that was monstrously unfair for some of the best pupils in poor performing schools across the country the second unfairness related

To small schools in particular and most of these were private schools now there ofquel thought that their algorithm just didn’t work for people where there were fewer than five or so students doing a particular subject in a particular school so then it just gave the kids effectively the teacher assessed grades which it knew to be optimistic and you’ve seen

Some very small private schools doing that fantastically well in this set of a-level results so and it also you see that in some subjects doing well where generally whether it’s private or state school they’re very small groups of students taking that a level so we see big increases in the marks for german for classical greek for music and these are definitely

Then unfair compared with students who’ve taken the big subjects like maths the sciences or english or history and the third unfairness was in the rounding method that meant that even if you were ranked one lower than another student in your school if there weren’t that many grades to be given and let’s say the algorithm had said the second lowest grade would

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Be a b in the school and the lowest grade would be a u the lowest ranked people would get that u and the one just above that would get the b and even if they were basically the same and there was no means of getting around that ranking system so it meant that the big unfairness was that the grades were imposed on the schools rather than taking account of what

The teachers thought and then moderating them up or down a little bit so what could often have done differently well moderation or standardization isn’t a new thing it happens in education all the time in primary schools writing exams for example at the age of 11 are moderated every year doesn’t cause any particular problem because you use the teacher grades

And then you use whatever evidence exists to mark them up or down a bit if certain schools have been seen to be over optimistic or pessimistic and it would have been perfectly possible for offwell to do a very similar system where it takes the fine grades that teachers assessed for each child and then looked at the whole school together and moderated that school

Up or down a bit to take account of whether that school was overly optimistic or overly pessimistic and it could have given schools effectively a score they had to reach in advance so they would know and have the internal arguments about whether they’ve been too optimistic or too pessimistic of whether german had been too optimistic and computer science had been

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Too pessimistic and they could have that argument when they know the children rather than it all being imposed by an algorithm and that would have been seen i think much more as a much fairer system and would have gone around a lot of the problems because you could still give the exceptional pupil in a poorly performing school the exceptional grades it’s just

That the average would have to be in line with that school’s average in the past you

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What went wrong with the A-level algorithm? l FT By Financial Times

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