Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 23 September 2020

CORONAVIRUS

Artificial intelligence used to grade GCSE and A-level exams

Computers, not teachers, to decide results of pupils whose exams were cancelled this summer

The first edition of the Global AI summit, which was due to be held virtually, will now be held online under the theme of AI for the Good of Humanity. Getty
The first edition of the Global AI summit, which was due to be held virtually, will now be held online under the theme of AI for the Good of Humanity. Getty

An exam watchdog has told pupils the statistical modelling being used to standardise their A-level and GCSE results is for their own good.

The new algorithm was created because of concern that relying solely on grades predicted by teachers could lead to inflated and unreliable results.

British qualifications are a popular choice for students in the UAE, with 91 schools offering A-levels, says WhichSchoolAdvisor, a reviewer of leading independent schools.

They are typically taken at ages 16 and 18, respectively.

Schools in May sent exam boards the grades they anticipated that pupils would have achieved had formal assessments not been cancelled because of the spread of Covid-19, along with ranking orders for them in each of their subjects.

Bringing ‘consistency’ to grading

Ofqual, the exams regulator in England, has since said that the boards were standardising the information they had received, “making adjustments to grades where needed to bring consistency to teacher judgements across all schools and colleges, and to make sure results are comparable with previous years”.

“This is in your interest and those of all students, and means that you, universities, colleges and employers can have confidence in results this year,” it said in guidance for pupils posted online this week.

Pupils are accustomed to using computers; they aren't used to computers deciding their grades. Pawan Singh/The National
Pupils are accustomed to using computers; they aren't used to computers deciding their grades. Pawan Singh/The National

The latest statement comes after Ofqual’s annual summer symposium for stakeholders, which covered in detail the exceptional arrangements in place for awarding grades this year.

It explained the variety of tools that would be used in the modelling to compute final grades, including historical results achieved by schools. The results will be published for A-levels on August 13 and on August 20 for GCSEs.

Baccalaureate backlash a sign of future trouble?

Jeff Evans, the director of Learning Key Education Consultancy in Abu Dhabi, said confidence could be shaky if the results released last month of the International Baccalaureate, a rival education programme for which exams were also cancelled, was any gauge.

Mr Evans said that there had been angry responses after some grades were far lower than predicted.

“It’s a concern really because – having seen what happened with the IB exams, the IB scores were drastically downgraded in many cases – parents and students will be very anxious, especially with university places depending on a one-grade difference sometimes,” he said. “It’s a pretty unprecedented situation.”

One significant bone of contention is the use of mock exams in factoring the final grade, he said. January mock exams are notoriously unreliable as a predictor of final results, Mr Evans said, because students often bump their marks up by a couple of grades when they sit the real A-levels and GCSE several months later.

Could some pupils be disproportionately disadvantaged?

There are also fears that such a system could disadvantage poorer pupils and those from black, Asian and other ethnic-minority backgrounds, who are more likely to attend worse-performing schools.

Concern was raised last month in a report by a committee of British MPs that wealthier pupils may benefit more from this kind of assessment.

The committee’s chair, Robert Halfon, said it was far from convinced that the appeals system would be fair.

Ofqual rebutted the claim, saying the expectation was that the majority of grades would be identical to or within one grade of those predicted by teachers.

A few days later it modified its position, releasing a statement that declared some teachers had been optimistic in their predictions but not uniformly so. Others had not been optimistic at all.

“Simply using the CAGs [centre assessment grades] to determine final grades would have been unfair,” it said.

Appeals allowed in event of clear error

Ofqual also said that appeals would still be allowed – but only if there had been an error in the process. “You can’t appeal just because you do not agree with the grade you received,” the new guidance said.

Those who wished to improve any of their grades would also have an opportunity to take exams in the autumn.

WhichSchoolAdvisor said it hoped those with a “legitimate causes for concern” would have their grievances addressed promptly.

Updated: August 2, 2020 11:34 PM

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