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UK Drops Biased Algorithm That Determined College Entrance Exam Scores

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  • On Monday, the United Kingdom largely scrapped an algorithm that was created to predict students’ scores on college and university entrance exams.
  • Originally, the UK asked teachers to provide predicted scores for students as exams were canceled due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
  • The education regulator, Ofqual, later overrode those predictions after saying that teachers had been too optimistic with grades. It then used an algorithm to reissue students’ scores, which caused 40% of students to see a drop in their results.
  • The algorithm was also found to have disenfranchised students from disadvantaged and more diverse schools.
  • Now, Ofqual will again reissue scores to students based on whichever is higher: their teachers’ prediction or the algorithm’s estimate.

UK Asks Teachers to Estimate Students’ Grades, Then Changes Them

The United Kingdom is now backtracking on a highly controversial algorithm because its results threatened university admissions offers for tens of thousands of students. 

The situation came after the government, seeking a way to preserve long-standing college admissions requirements, issued mock scores to students for their A-level exams. Mock scores were given to students because the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic forced schools in the UK to close in March; as a result, the exams weren’t held. 

Instead, teachers were instructed to predict what they believed students would have made on the exams. Alongside that, they also submitted students’ class ranks. 

Those estimates were then sent to and reviewed by the education regulator Ofqual, which later determined that teachers had been too optimistic about their students’ scores. In turn, regulators worried that those predictions would lead to “grade inflation.”

Instead, Ofqual seemed to rip a page straight out of a dystopian novel by creating an algorithm that predicted what students would have made on a test they never took. 

Algorithm Found to Benefit Students At Elite Schools

The results of that algorithm, which were issued Thursday, led to 40% of students (roughly 280,000 students) having their scores downgraded, most by a single letter grade. Only 2% of students saw an increase in their scores. 

The algorithm also seemed to hide a more sinister secret: it appeared to benefit private school students over those attending public school. In fact, according to the results, twice as many private school students were awarded A’s compared to their public school counterparts.

Critics also argued that because the algorithm placed an abstract amount of importance on schools’ historical performances, it disenfranchised students from less wealthy and poorer-performing schools — even if specific students had excelled. In many instances, these new results directly hurt students from more disadvantaged and diverse schools.

The results of A-level exams are critical for students since, many times, they need to achieve a benchmark grade to even be considered at certain universities. For tens of thousands of students, these results threatened those chances — even if they had already received acceptance offers.

Speaking to The Washington Post, Maimuna Hassan said she had been accepted to both Cambridge University and Imperial College London, two of the best schools in the UK; however, both offers were contingent on Hassan being awarded no less than straight A’s on her A-level exams. 

While she was given as much from her teacher’s prediction, Ofqual’s algorithm dropped her grade in physics to a B — meaning her offers from both colleges could potentially be repealed.

According to Hassan, who excelled in school, the algorithm punished her because she had attended a high school that had previously struggled.

Stories like that drove mass protests outside of Parliament in London over the weekend, where students demanded that the government revoke the newly-issued grades. Many held signs reading messages like, “Judge potential, not postcode.” Others burned their estimated exam results in front of cheering crowds.

UK Says it Won’t Change Results Before Backtracking

At first, it didn’t seem like the government was willing to go back to the old system.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the new results “robust” and “dependable.”

“Pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, more than ever before, are now able to go to university, are going to university this year as a result of the grades they’ve got today,” he added in a statement that attracted the ire of protesters.

On Saturday, Britain’s education secretary, Gavin Williamson, affirmed that there would be “no U-turn, no change.”

Still, Ofqual said that individual students would be able to appeal their exam results. Then, on Sunday, the regulator caused mass confusion after it removed its appeal guidance from its website.

A more definitive answer came Monday when the government changed its tone and announced that it was backtracking its use of the algorithm.

“We understand this has been a distressing time for students, who were awarded exam results last week for exams they never took,” Ofqual Chair Roger Taylor said in a statement. “The pandemic has created circumstances no one could have ever imagined or wished for. We want to now take steps to remove as much stress and uncertainty for young people as possible.”

“After reflection, we have decided that the best way to do this is to award grades on the basis of what teachers submitted,” he added.

Taylor went on to say that teachers’ predictions will only be overrode if a student’s algorithm estimate is higher.

While many students were no doubt happy to see a victory over the algorithm, as one principal told The Washington Post: this may come “too late for some students who have had university offers rejected and with courses now full.” 

Similarly, Good Law Project Legal Director Gemma Abbott told CNN, “On the face of it, reverting to center assessment grades is the fairest way to deal with the situation we are now in. It’s not perfect, but it is significantly better than the Ofqual algorithm.”

“There are ramifications to the government’s incompetence and prevarications that cannot be undone, however: In particular, it seems likely that some university places will have to be deferred until next year due to issues of space. And I don’t think the young people affected by this will easily forgive — or forget — the government’s willingness to sacrifice their hopes and dreams in pursuit of the much less important goal of minimizing grade inflation.”

Ofqual had also planned to use the algorithm to estimate scores for students taking the GCSE, an exam generally taken by students ages 14 to 16. Now, it will also reverse course away from that algorithm.

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (BBC) (ITV)

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200 Children Seeking Asylum in the U.K. Are Missing 

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The missing include at least 13 children under the age of 16. 


Children Missing From Hotels

There are 200 asylum-seeking children missing from government care in the United Kingdom according to the parliamentary undersecretary of state at the Home Office.

When children are seeking asylum in the U.K. alone or separated from their parents, the government puts them up in hotel rooms for temporary accommodation. They have done so since 2021 and have temporarily accommodated 4,600 children in that time. However, Simon Murray, the parliamentary undersecretary of state at the Home Office, said that 200 of the children placed in those hotels are missing, including at least 13 who are under the age of 16.

In response to this information, a collection of more than 100 charities sent a letter to the Prime Minister demanding the end of the procedure of placing kids in hotels over safety concerns. The letter says that these children are at risk of trafficking and exploitation by staying in these hotels alone.

Other officials have echoed these concerns, claiming these hotels are targets for organized crime where people use these vulnerable children for labor or trafficking.

Parliament Calls Incident “Horrific”

Murray told the House of Lords on Monday that despite the media reports, his department does not know of any kidnapping cases, though they are investigating. He went on to say there are many reasons why children go missing. 

However, lawmakers were not appeased by Murray’s assurances. In a later debate, one member of Parliament called the missing cases “horrific” and another said that it was “putting children at risk.”  The children’s commissioner for England also reportedly chimed in asking for, quote “assurances on the steps being taken to safeguard the children.” 

Murray went on to say that the use of hotels for asylum-seeking children will hopefully be phased out as soon as possible but did not give a timeline. 

The nonprofit Refugee Council called on the government in a tweet to spare no expense in the location of these missing kids.

See what others are saying: (Washington Post) (The Guardian) (The Telegraph)

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100,000 U.K. Nurses Launch Biggest Strike in NHS History

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Opposition leader Keir Starmer called the strike “a badge of shame on this government.”


The NHS Grinds to a Halt

Some 100,000 members of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), the United Kingdom’s largest nursing union, launched a historic 12-hour strike Thursday after the government refused to negotiate on higher pay.

The work stoppage, which spans England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, is only the second in the RCN’s 106-year history and the largest the NHS has ever seen. It marks the breaking point for many underpaid nurses and the culmination of a years-long decline in the NHS’s quality of care, put under increasing stress by severe staffing shortages.

Although most NHS staff in England and Wales received a pay rise of around £1,400 this year, worth about 4% on average for nurses, they say it has not kept up with inflation as Britain plunges deeper into a cost-of-living crisis.

When inflation is accounted for, nurses’ pay dropped 1.2% every year from 2010 to 2017, according to the Health Foundation.

Meanwhile, the number of patients waiting for care has reached a record 7.2 million in England, or over one in eight residents, more than double what it was seven years ago.

In July, the cross-party Commons Health and Social Care Select Committee estimated the staffing shortfall could be as high as 50,000 nurses and 12,000 doctors, what one MP called the “greatest workforce crisis in history.”

Many nurses argue that boosting pay will help hospitals recruit more staff.

The RCN demanded a pay raise 5% above the retail rate of inflation, which amounts to a 19% increase, but both Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and the government’s health secretary have claimed that’s not affordable.

During Thursday’s strike, partial staffing continued to remain open for urgent care such as chemotherapy, kidney dialysis, and children’s accident and neonatal units.

Sunak and Starmer Brawl in Parliament

Labor leader Keir Starmer grilled Sunak during Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) on the upcoming strike.

“Tomorrow will be the first-ever nationwide nurse’s strike,” he said. “All the Prime Minister has to do to stop that is to open the door and discuss pay with them. If he did, the whole country would breathe a sigh of relief. Why won’t he?”

“We have consistently spoken to all the unions involved in all the pay disputes that there are,” Sunak replied. “Last year, when everyone else in the public sector had a public sector pay freeze, the nurses received a three-percent pay rise.”

Starmer fired back: “Nurses going on strike is a badge of shame for this government. Instead of showing leadership, he’s playing games with people’s health.”

Sunak called Starmer’s demand that he reopen negotiations with the RCN “just simply a political formula for avoiding taking a position on this issue.”

“If he thinks the strikes are wrong, he should say so,” Sunak said. “If he thinks it’s right that pay demands of nineteen percent are met, then he should say so. What’s weak, Mr. Speaker, is he’s not strong enough to stand up to the union.”

While Starmer has called on Sunak to negotiate with the RCN, he has not explicitly backed the 19% pay raise himself.

Unless the government returns to the bargaining table, the RCN plans to launch a second round of strikes on Dec. 20 to be followed by ambulance strikes that Wednesday and the next.

If the government still refuses to budge, the union said in a statement that nurses will strike for longer periods in more places starting in January, disrupting more health services.

Other industries are also set to see work stoppages this month, including workers on railways, buses, highways, and borders, as well as teachers, postal workers, baggage handlers, and paramedics.

See what others are saying: (BBC) (CNN) (The Guardian)

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Fortnite Developer Sued By Parents for Making the Game as “Addictive as Possible”

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One child mentioned in the lawsuit played over 7,700 rounds of Fortnite in two years.


Epic Games Sued 

A Quebec City judge recently approved a 2019 class-action lawsuit accusing Fortnite developer Epic Games of deliberately making Fortnite addictive.

The parents who brought forward the lawsuit claim their children have become so obsessed with the game that in some cases, they’ve stopped eating, showering, or socializing. The lawsuit claims that these kids have played thousands of games since Fortnite’s release in 2017. In one example, a teenager played over 7,700 games in less than two years. 

If the lawsuit succeeds, players addicted to Fortnite living in Quebec since September 2017 could receive compensation. The plaintiff’s attorney, Philippe Caron, reports that over 200 parents outside the lawsuit have reached out to him, saying their child’s well-being has diminished since downloading Fortnite. He told The Washington Post that they are very confident about their case. 

Epic Games Responds

“We plan to fight this in court,” Natalie Munoz, a spokesperson for Epic Games said to The Post, “We believe the evidence will show that this case is meritless.” 

Munoz also said that Fortnite does allow parents to supervise their child’s playtime and require permission for purchases.

The parents involved in the lawsuit are claiming that they were not aware of the dangers playing Fortnite could pose for their children. 

“If she had been informed by the defendants of the risks and dangers associated with the use of FORTNITE,” the lawsuit says of one guardian. “She would have categorically refused to allow the game to be downloaded.” 

See what others are saying: (BBC) (The Washington Post) (Deadline

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