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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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Tunisian President Fires Prime Minister, Suspends Parliament Over Deadlock and COVID-19 Response

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President Kais Saied claims his actions are constitutional and have the support of the military, which has already blocked off government buildings. His opponents, however, call the move little more than a coup.


President Makes Massive Changes to Government

Tunisia’s government received a major shakeup after President Kais Saied fired the Prime Minister and froze parliament late Sunday.

The move, according to Saied, was meant to break years of parliamentary deadlock between Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and various political parties that have sturggled to find common ground. However, the timing comes just after a massive protest over how the government has handled the COVID-19 pandemic turned violent earlier on Sunday.

Either way, the move risks sparking a confrontation between Saied —who is backed by the army — and various political parties that view his actions as a coup.

The President’s actions have proven cotnroversial. Despite that, he has widepsread support after being elected in 2019 on a platform to fight corrupt politicians.

After the announcement, tens of thousands have taken to the streets in support of his decision to dismiss the Prime Minister and parliament, with many cheering as he appeared among the crowd Sunday night.

In recent months, anger at the ruling government has only increased as many feel the ruling coalition, largely made up of the Islamist Ennahda (“Renaissance”) party, have been ineffective.

It’s a common belief in Tunisia that Ennahda’s rule, alongside its tenuous coalition, helped exacerbate problems caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to the economy shrinking by 8% as tourism plummeted.

One of the President’s supporters told Reuters and other outlets during Sunday’s demonstration, “We are here to protect Tunisia. We have seen all the tragedies under the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood.”

He mentioned the Muslim Brotherhood, which had a strong presence in Egpyt after the Arab Spring, becuase Ennahda has longstanding relationship with the group, although it has sought to distance itself as a more moderate political group over the last few years.

Now, for their part, the ruling coalition has argued that Saied’s move is clearly unconstitutional. Rached Ghannouchi, leade of Ennahda and Parliamentary Speaker, said that he is “against gathering all powers in the hands of one person.” His position isn’t without supporters eithers. Both sides have already gathered throughout the capital and have thrown rocks at each other.

Legalities of Article 80

The question across many minds is whether or not Saied’s actions are actually constitutional.

He claims that under Article 80 of the constitution, he can fire the Prime Minister, suspend parliament for 30 days, and appoint a premier to rule — all of which is true.

However, in order to do that, the Prime Minister and the Parliamentary Speaker need to be consulted; something Parliamentary Speaker Ghannouchi said was never done. It’s unclear what Mechichi’s position is as he’s stayed inside his home all day, though the army says he is not under any kind of arrest.

In addition to those requirements, a Constitutional Court needs to approve the move, and one hasn’t been set up. As the German Foregin Office put it on Monday morning, it seems like Saied is relying on “a rather broad interpretation of the constitution.”

International observers hope a solution will soon be made to keep what seems to be the last functional democracy to come from the Arab Spring from devolving into civil war or dictatorship.

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

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South Korean President Makes BTS Official Presidential Envoys

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The position is largely ceremonial but will be used by the government to help give a friendly and popular face to national and international initiatives spearheaded by Seoul.


Government Recognition

The K-pop band BTS will be adding to its list of global impacts this year after South Korean President Moon Jae-in appointed its members as Presidential Envoys on Wednesday.

The role will include attending international conferences such as the United Nations General Assembly in September.

At these events, BTS will perform “various activities to promote international cooperation in solving global challenges, such as improving the environment, eliminating poverty and inequality, and respecting diversity,” according to Park Kyung-mee, a Blue House spokesperson.

The band has already appeared at U.N. conferences multiple times over the last few years.

Just last year, the group gave a message of hope and reassurance through the U.N. during the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior appearances at the U.N. have been either as part of U.N. organizations or as private citizens.

Wednesday’s appointment will make them official representatives of South Korea, although they won’t actually engage in any direct diplomacy and instead will be used to promote the country’s ongoing efforts in youth-related projects.

Longstanding Policy

BTS’ success, alongside prior and current K-pop groups, has remained a masterclass of soft diplomacy by the Korean government. For decades, the Korean government has cultivated promoting cultural aspects abroad in the hopes of generating more interest in the country. There are hopes that such efforts will encourage more tourism as well as an elevated image when consumers consider Korean-made products.

Such efforts, beyond cultivating K-pop and raising its stars as semi-official government symbols, also include helping fund Korean restaurants abroad as well as free Korean-language classes taught by Professors of some of Korea’s most prestigious schools.

The news comes as BTS’ newest single, “Permission to Dance,” quickly took the #1 spot on the Billboard top 100. BTS is also partnering with YouTube to promote a Permission to Dance challenge on YouTube Shorts that will begin tomorrow and end on August 4.

Fans will be encouraged to replicate dance moves from the music video, and the group’s favorite clips will be put into a compilation made by them.

See what others are saying: (Yonhap News) (The Korea Times) (All Kpop)

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Over 1 Million Chinese Displaced After Record Rainfall

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The rain has created waist-high waters throughout the capital of China’s Henan province, drastically affecting the lives of its over 10 million inhabitants.


Trapped in a Flood

The Henan province of central China experienced severe rainfall over the last week that has left at least 25 dead and displaced more than 1.2 million people due to severe flooding, according to figures released by Chinese authorities Wednesday.

Meteorologists claim that the sudden, severe rainfall is caused by Typhoon In-Fa colliding with a high-pressure system over Henan province.

The floods have forced people to wade through waist-high water throughout Zhengzhou, the region’s capital. In one tragic incident Monday, 12 people died after they were trapped in the subway amid rising waters. A similar situation occurred Tuesday, causing multiple lines to be trapped in chest-high water for up to three hours before rescue workers managed to save them. Since then, metro authorities have shut down many of Zhengzhou’s rail lines.

Between Monday and Tuesday alone, Zhengzhou was hit with an estimated 25 inches of rain, equating to about 87% of its average annual rainfall. At one point, seven inches of rain occurred in less than an hour.

In an effort to alleviate rising waters, authorities breached a nearby dam to release floodwaters on Tuesday, although it’s unclear how much that helped as many dams and rivers in the region have overflowed for days.

Elsewhere in Henan, villages have been cut off by landslides and flooding, killing at least four others and leaving some areas without power for more than 24 hours.

Long Recovery Ahead

The region was finally able to begin recovery efforts Wednesday as conditions have begun to die down.

Despite reduced rainfall, the situation has still proven to be dire, leading President Xi Jinping to issue a statement through state media ordering authorities to give top priority to people’s safety and property.

In total, more than 17,000 firefighters have been mobilized for rescue efforts, as well as local volunteers and other rescue crews from other provinces.

Chinese companies have rushed to donate money to help the affected communities, and so far over $300 million has been donated.

It’s likely that for some time, hundreds of thousands in the region will be left without homes as authorities begin the work of ensuring that buildings are safe to return to.

See what others are saying: (South China Morning Post) (BBC) (The New York Times)

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