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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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New Zealand Considers Banning Cigarettes For People Born After 2004

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  • New Zealand announced a series of proposals that aim to outlaw smoking for the next generation with the hopes of being smoke-free by 2025.
  • Among the proposed provisions are plans to gradually increase the legal smoking age and possibly prohibit the sale of cigarettes and tobacco products to anyone born after 2004; effectively banning smoking for that generation.
  • Beyond that, the level of nicotine in products will likely be significantly reduced, setting a minimum price for tobacco and heavily restricting where it can be sold.
  • The proposals have proven to be popular as one in four New Zealand cancer deaths are tobacco-related, but some have criticized them as government overreach and worry a ban could lead to a bigger and more robust black market.

Smoke Free 2025

New Zealand announced sweeping new proposals on Thursday that would effectively phase out the use of tobacco products, a move that is in line with its hopes to become a smoke-free country by 2025.

Among a number of provisions, the proposals include plans to gradually increase the legal smoking age and bar anyone born after 2004 from buying tobacco products. Such a ban would effectively end tobacco sales after a few decades. The government is also considering significantly reducing the level of nicotine allowed in tobacco products, prohibiting filters, restricting locations where tobacco products can be purchased, and setting a steep minimum price for tobacco.

“We need a new approach.” Associate Health Minister Dr. Ayesha Verral said when announcing the changes on Thursday. 

“About 4,500 New Zealanders die every year from tobacco, and we need to make accelerated progress to be able to reach [a Smoke Free 2025]. Business-as-usual without a tobacco control program won’t get us there.”

The proposals received a large welcome from public health organizations and local groups. Shane Kawenata Bradbrook, an advocate for smoke-free Maori communities, told The Guardian that the plan “will begin the final demise of tobacco products in this country.” 

The Cancer Society pointed out that these proposals would help combat health inequities in the nation, as tobacco stores were four times more likely to be in low-income neighborhoods, where smoking rates are highest.

Not Without Flaws

The proposals weren’t completely without controversy. There are concerns that a complete ban could bankrupt “dairy” store owners (the equivalent to a U.S. convenience store) who rely on tobacco sales to stay afloat. 

There are also concerns that prohibition largely doesn’t work, as has been seen in other nations with goods such as alcohol or marijuana. Many believe a  blanket ban on tobacco will increase the incentive to smuggle and sell the products on the black market. The government even acknowledged the issue in a document outlining Thursday’s proposals. 

“Evidence indicates that the amount of tobacco products being smuggled into New Zealand has increased substantially in recent years and organised criminal groups are involved in large-scale smuggling,” the document said.

Some are also concerned about how much the government is intervening in people’s lives.

“There’s a philosophical principle about adults being able to make decisions for themselves, within reason,” journalist Alex Braae wrote. 

The opposition ACT party also added that lowering nicotine content in tobacco products could lead to smokers smoking more, a particular concern as one-in-four cancer cases in New Zealand are tobacco-related.

See what others are saying: (Stuff) (Independent) (The Guardian)

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Egypt Seizes Ship That Blocked Suez Canal Until Owners Pay Nearly $1 Billion

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  • Egyptian authorities seized the Ever Given, a mega-ship that blocked the Suez Canal for nearly a week last month, after a judge ruled Wednesday that the owners must pay $900 million in damages.
  • The ship was seized just as it was deemed fit to return to sea after undergoing repairs in the Great Bitter Lake, which sits in the middle of the Suez Canal.
  • The vessel’s owners said little about the verdict, but insurance companies covering the ship pushed back against the $900 million price tag, saying it’s far too much for any damage the ship actually caused.

Ever Given Still in Egypt

An Egyptian court blocked the mega-ship known as the Ever Given from leaving the country Wednesday morning unless its owner pays nearly $1 billion in compensation for damages it caused after blocking the Suez Canal for nearly a week last month.

The Ever Given’s ordeal started when it slammed into the side of the canal and became lodged, which caused billions of dollars worth of goods to be held up on both sides of the canal while crews worked round the clock to free the vessel. An Egyptian judge found that the Ever Given becoming stuck caused not only physical damage to the canal that needed to be paid for but also “reputational” damage to Egypt and the Suez Canal Authority.

The ship’s Japanese owner, Shoei Kisen Kaisha, will need to pay $900 million to free the ship and the cargo it held, both of which were seized by authorities after the ship was transported to the Great Bitter Lake in the middle of the canal to undergo now-finished repairs. Shoei Kisen Kaisha doesn’t seem to want to fight the judgment in court just yet. It released a short statement after the ruling, saying that lawyers and insurance companies were working on the claims but refused to comment further.

Pushing Back Against The Claim

While Shoei Kisen Kaisha put in a claim with insurers, those insurance companies aren’t keen on just paying the bill. One of the ship’s insurers, UKP&I, challenged the basis of the $900 million claim, writing in a press release, “The [Suez Canal Authority] has not provided a detailed justification for this extraordinarily large claim, which includes a $300 million claim for a ‘salvage bonus’ and a $300 million claim for ‘loss of reputation.’”

“The grounding resulted in no pollution and no reported injuries. The vessel was re-floated after six days and the Suez Canal promptly resumed their commercial operations.”

It went on to add that the $900 million verdict doesn’t even include payments to the crews that worked to free the ship, meaning that the total price tag of the event could likely be far more for Shoei Kisen Kaisha and the multiple insurance companies it works with.

See what others are saying: (Financial Times) (CNN) (The Telegraph)

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Treated Radioactive Water From Japanese Nuclear Power Plant Will Be Released Into Ocean

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  • The Japanese government confirmed Tuesday that it will officially move forward with plans to dump millions of gallons of radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant into the ocean.
  • The government spent a decade decontaminating the water, only leaving a naturally occurring isotope in it that scientists recognize as safe for people and the environment.
  • Despite the safety claims, protesters took to the streets in Tokyo to show disapproval of the decision. Local business owners, in particular, have expressed fears that more municipalities worldwide could ban Fukushima products, including fish, because of distrust in the water.
  • Meanwhile, officials have insisted that the dump is necessary as the water takes up a massive amount of space, which is needed to store highly radioactive fuel rods from the remaining cores at the now-defunct nuclear facility.

Editor’s Note: The Japanese government has asked Western outlets to adhere to Japanese naming conventions. To that end, Japanese names will be written as Family Name followed by Given Name.

Radioactive or Bad Publicity?

After years of discussions and debate, the Japanese government announced Tuesday that it will dump radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant into the ocean.

Government officials consider the move necessary, but it’s facing backlash from local businesses, particularly fisheries, over potential consequences it could have. Many are especially concerned that the decision will create bad press for the region as headlines about it emerge. For instance, a headline from the Guardian on the issue reads, “Japan announces it will dump contaminated water into sea.”

While the water is contaminated and radioactive, it’s not nearly what the headlines make it out to be. The government has spent the last decade decontaminating it, and now it only contains a trace amount of the isotope tritium. That isotope is common in nature and is already found in trace amounts in groundwater throughout the world. Its radiation is so weak that it can’t pierce human skin, meaning one could only possibly get sick by ingesting more than that has ever been recorded.

According to the government, the decontaminated water at Fukushima will be diluted to 1/7 of the WHO’s acceptable radiation levels for drinking water before being released into the ocean over two years.

Something Had To Eventually Be Done

Over the last decade, Japan has proposed this plan and other similar ones, such as evaporating the water, which the International Atomic Energy Agency said last year met global standards.

The water has been sitting in containers for years, so why is there a push to remove it now? Space and leakage seem to be the primary reasons.

The water containers are slowly being filled by groundwater, and the government expects to run out of space relatively soon. Space is sorely needed, as Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide has pointed out in the past that the government wants to use the space to store damaged radioactive fuel rods that still need to be extracted from the plant. Unlike the water, those rods are dangerously radioactive and need proper storage.

Regardless, Suga reportedly recognizes that removing the water is going to end up as a lose-lose situation.

“It is inevitable that there would be reputational damage regardless of how the water will be disposed of, whether into the sea or into the air,” he said at a press conference last week. As expected, the government’s decision did trigger backlash, prompting many demonstrators to take to the streets of Tokyo Tuesday in protest.

To this day, eleven countries and regions still ban many products from the Fukushima prefecture despite massive clean-up efforts that have seen people returning to the area to live.

See what others are saying: (NPR) (KBS World) (NBC News)

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