NEWS15 January 2021

‘Don’t blame algorithms’ for exam issues, says professional IT body

AI Covid-19 News Public Sector UK

UK – Following an announcement that England’s secondary school examinations are to be cancelled again in 2021, BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, has said algorithms should not be blamed for the results controversy last year.

Algorithms code_Crop

A-level, AS and GCSE pupils could be asked to sit smaller external exams instead of formal examinations to help teachers make assessments this year.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have also said that they will not proceed with exams in 2021.

Qualifications regulators across the UK faced criticism in 2020 over the use of algorithmic models to award results, after traditional assessments were cancelled due to Covid-19.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson has asked examinations regulator Ofqual to consult on alternative arrangements but has ruled out the use of algorithms.

Bill Mitchell, director of policy at BCS, said: “The government’s decision to not go ahead with exams this summer is understandable considering the impact of the pandemic on students learning. It is however disappointing that algorithms, in general, are being blamed again for the exam results crisis of last year.”

In a letter to Ofqual’s chief regulator Simon Lebus yesterday ( 13th January), Williamson said: “We have agreed that we will not use an algorithm to set or automatically standardise anyone’s grade.”

Williamson also said in the letter that any changes to grades should be based on “human decisions”, not made via an automatic process.

Assessments are likely to involve the use of externally set tasks or papers.

Mitchell said last year’s algorithm was “ill-conceived” and “caused a loss of public trust in the very idea of an algorithm being used to make judgments of any kind”.

Mitchell continued: “The true problem was a collective lack of technology governance, which can be fixed should we choose to. We all need to work together to sort out the design and development governance for algorithms in public service, not just blame the algorithm. It only did what it was told to do – that is the point of algorithms.”

In September, BCS published a report recommending that the government endorse and support the professionalising of data science, in line with a plan already being developed by a collaboration alongside the Royal Statistical Society and the Royal Society.