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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)

International

Petition Calls for Ban on Sexualized Fanfiction in South Korea

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  • A petition circulating across South Korea calls for sexualized fanfiction depicting K-pop stars and other real people to be outlawed and classified as sex crimes.
  • The petition particularly focuses on the way male stars are depicted in same-sex relationships and argues that they often feature people who are minors.
  • A similar petition was submitted last week to President Moon Jae-in; however, it focused on deep fakes. Because both petitions have over 200,000 signatures, they will need to be addressed by President Moon.

K-Pop Fanfiction Causes Chaos

A petition began circulating across South Korea this week demanding that “real person slash” fanfiction works be outlawed and charged as sex crimes.

“Real person slash” refers to a specific form of fanfiction that most often features sexualized versions of K-pop stars and other real people.

In particular, the petition focuses on the way male stars are depicted in same-sex relationships and the age of some of the people being portrayed. The petition notes, “due to the nature of the profession of idols, whose average age is young, many of the victims are still minors or children.”

The petition was submitted to the Blue House, South Korea’s version of the White House, and currently has over 200,000 signatures. It received a big boost in attention after K-pop star Nancy, from the group Momoland, was secretly filmed by a member of her agency while she was changing backstage. This person then doctored some of the images and uploaded them online.

While Nancy’s case isn’t hand-drawn fanfic, it did fuel outrage at what’s seen as an ineffective approach towards sex crimes in the country. Signers of this petition believe that these fanfics fall into the same category of likely illegality as deep fakes.

Deep Fakes Also Being Targeted

Additionally, just last week deep fakes – which often feature k-pop stars – had its own petition submitted to the president last week with over 300,000 signatures.

Because both petitions have over 200,000 signatures, they will need to be addressed by President Moon Jae-in

For years South Korea has struggled with secret cameras, deep fakes, revenge porn, and more violent sex crimes, such as the infamous Nth Room case that saw certain stars filming themselves having sex with women against their consent.

See What Others Are Saying: (CNA) (The Korea Herald) (South China Morning Post)

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Italy Begins Largest Mob Trial in Decades

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  • Italian prosecutors have started their trial against more than 320 defendants linked to the  ‘Ndrangheta crime syndicate.
  • The charges range from murder and drug trafficking to extortion and money laundering.
  • The case is so large, high-profile, and potentially dangerous that the government built a bunker for the event in Calabria, the home territory of the ‘Ndrangheta.
  • Details uncovered could deliver a massive blow to organized crime in Italy and potentially across the world as the ‘Ndrangheta has major dealings in Europe, Australia, and the Americas.

Hundreds of ‘Ndranghetisti Facing Charges

A major mob trial kicked off in Italy Wednesday involving more than 320 defendants who are part of or associated with the ‘Ndrangheta crime syndicate.

In addition to these defendants going on trial, 90 others have elected for a fast-tracked trial elsewhere in Calabria.

While this is a massive affair, it’s still not the country’s largest mob-related trial in history. That happened in the ’80s against the Cosa Nostra from Sicily.

The trial is so high-profile and potentially dangerous that the government built a bunker for the event in Calabria, close to the home territory of the ‘Ndrangheta.

The court is looking at many charges against the defendants, including extortion, drug and arms trafficking, money laundering, and Mafia association – a term used in Italy’s penal code for members of organized crime.

Breaking Into the Family

Investigators hope that the trial will show just how entrenched organized crime is in the territory, as it’s believed that the ‘Ndrangheta has dealings with local politicians and businessmen. These dealings are believed to not only stem from their illicit activities but also from their legitimate businesses that were initially funded via crime-related funds. Either way, the trial is seen as a major blow for the group.

The organization is made up of multiple groups of tight-knight families that are all interconnected. For years investigators have tried to get more information on the group but following the arrest and prosecution of Luigi Mancuso, a boss in the ‘Ndrangheta, investigators finally had a way to look more closely at 12 families who make up part of the ‘Ndrangheta.

During their investigation police and prosecutors managed to turn some members of those families and use them as informants. They are expected to take the stand as witnesses during the trial. In total, prosecutors hope to put bring out over 900 witnesses.

If successful, this could be a massive blow to organized crime in Italy and potentially across the world as the ‘Ndrangheta has major dealing in Europe, Australia, and the Americas.

See What Others Are Saying: (ABC News) (LA Times) (Chicago Tribune)

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Hundreds Sickened By Mysterious Illness in India

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  • A mystery illness has hospitalized over 500 people in India and is linked to one death. While most people have recovered and been discharged from the hospital, under 100 people are still being treated.
  • Health officials believe that it is not a viral infection and that it is not tied to the coronavirus pandemic. One official told The Washington Post that it is a “point source epidemic,” but no one knows what is causing it.
  • Blood tests showed patients had high levels of lead and nickel and officials are trying to find what is behind that. Some are also pointing to pesticides used in mosquito treatment as a potential cause behind the outbreak.
  • Still, health officials are puzzled, and the situation comes while India currently trails the United States as the country with the most coronavirus cases. This mystery outbreak is also occurring in one of the hardest-hit states.

Mystery Illness in India

Health officials are still looking for what might be causing a mysterious illness that has sickened hundreds of people this month in India. 

The unidentified illness has put over 500 people in the hospital and taken one life. Most patients have been discharged and recovered but under 100 are still being treated. The disease was first reported on Sunday, and new instances have gone down since the start of the week.

The outbreak started in the state of  Andhra Pradesh. Symptoms range from nausea to anxiety to loss of consciousness, and in some cases, seizures. Some reports say the patient who died suffered from a seizure. Others note they may have fallen as well.

Many patients describe the sickness as hitting them quickly and suddenly as they were going about their day. Some got foggy vision, sore eyes, or incredibly tired before passing out. Many woke up in the hospital and were left with a gap in their memory. 

While the cause of this disease is unknown, health officials do not believe it is tied to the coronavirus in any way as no patients have tested positive. The illness is also not believed to be a viral infection of any kind. 

“What has been established by experts is that this is a case of acute intoxication of toxins. It is not chronic in nature. This is all we know for now,” one high-ranking official told The Washington Post. 

Because cases are already slowing significantly, some believe it might have stemmed from an isolated source or event. 

“This is a point source epidemic,” another official told the Post. “Whatever happened, occurred for one particular day and some people got affected. The number of new patients has dropped.”

Potential Causes

What that source or event may have been remains a mystery that officials are eager to solve. So far, no commonalities have been found between the patients as they all live in different places, are of different ages, and do not test positive for other kinds of illnesses that could be causing or contributing to this outbreak. Clues are beginning to emerge, though. 

One medical official told Al Jazeera that high lead and nickel levels were found in the blood tests of patients. So far, ten have been tested and another 30 will be tested shortly. At first officials thought these levels may have been a result of water contamination, but after water tests were conducted, neither lead nor nickel were found. 

Water contamination as a whole has not been ruled out though. 

“Health experts suspect that excessive use of bleaching powder and chlorine in sanitation programmes as part of Covid-19 prevention measures may be the cause of water contamination,” the Health Minister of Andhra Pradesh told the Indian Express. “This is just one of the causes we are exploring.”

Another theory at play stems from the fact that organochlorines, which are used as pesticides in mosquito control, were found in some water samples. One of the federal legislators in the state believes that the sickness could be tied to that. A public health director confirmed to Al Jazeera that “it is one of the possibilities.”

Timing With COVID-19

Still, all these ideas simply remain possibilities and officials have far more questions than they have answers about this situation. Health officials from the country and the World Health Organization have established a presence in Andhra Pradesh to get to the bottom of the situation.

The timing of this outbreak is unfortunate as the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread through India. While daily cases are much lower than they were when it peaked in September in the country, it still remains an issue. 

India is behind the United States in seeing the second-highest number of COVID-19 cases, totaling 9.7 million infections. Around 141,000 people have died in the country. In August, their outbreak was the fastest growing in the world. Andhra Pradesh is among the hardest-hit states in the country. 

Hope is on the horizon as India, like many other countries, could be on track to approve a vaccine within weeks. According to Reuters, health officials will prioritize 300 million people, including healthcare workers, policemen, and those above the age of 50.

See what others are saying: (Al Jazeera) (Indian Express) (Washington Post)

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