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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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Russia Takes Over 900 Azovstal Fighters Prisoner as Mariupol Surrenders

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Ukraine said the soldiers successfully completed their mission, but the fall of Mariupol represents a strategic win for Putin.


Azovstal Waves the White Flag

Russia’s foreign ministry announced on Wednesday that it had captured 959 Ukrainians from the Azovstal steelworks, where besieged soldiers have maintained the last pocket of resistance in Mariupol for weeks.

A ministry spokesperson said in a statement that 51 were being treated for injuries, and the rest were sent to a former prison colony in the town of Olenivka in a Russian-controlled area of Donetsk.

The defense ministry released videos of what it claimed were Ukrainian fighters receiving care at a hospital in the Russian-controlled town of Novoazovsk. In one, a soldier tells the camera he is being treated “normally” and that he is not being psychologically pressured, though it is unclear whether he is speaking freely.

It was unclear if any Ukrainians remained in Azovstal, but Denis Pushilin, the head of the self-proclaimed republic of Donetsk, said in a statement Wednesday that the “commanders of the highest level” were still hiding in the plant.

Previously, estimates put the number of soldiers inside Azovstal around 1,000.

Ukraine officially gave up Mariupol on Monday, when the first Azovstal fighters began surrendering.

Reuters filmed dozens of wounded Ukrainians being driven away in buses marked with the Russian pro-war “Z” symbol.

Ukraine’s deputy defense minister said in a Tuesday statement that the Ukrainian prisoners would be swapped in an exchange for captured Russians. But numerous Russian officials have signaled that the Ukrainian soldiers should be tried.

Mariupol Falls into Russian Hands

After nearly three months of bombardment that left Mariupol in ruins, Russia’s combat mission in the city has ended.

The sprawling complex of underground tunnels, caverns, and bunkers beneath Azovstal provided a defensible position for the Ukrainians there, and they came to represent the country’s resolve in the face of Russian aggression for many spectators.

Earlier this month, women, children, and the elderly were evacuated from the plant.

The definitive capture of Mariupol, a strategic port city, is a loss for Ukraine and a boon for Russia, which can now establish a land bridge between Crimea and parts of Eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian separatists. The development could also free up Russian troops around Mariupol to advance on the East, while additional reinforcements near Kharkiv descend from the north, potentially cutting off Ukrainian forces from the rest of the country.

The Ukrainian military has framed events in Mariupol as at least a partial success, arguing that the defenders of Azovstal completed their mission by tying down Russian troops and resources in the city and giving Ukrainians elsewhere more breathing room.

It claimed that doing so prevented Russia from rapidly capturing the city of Zaporizhzhia further to the west.

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

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Convoy of Up to 1,000 Vehicles Evacuates Refugees From Mariupol as Russian War Effort Stalls

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Russia may have lost a third of its ground invasion force since the war began, according to British military intelligence.


Hundreds Make It Out Alive

A convoy of between 500 and 1,000 vehicles evacuating refugees from the southern port city of Mariupol arrived safely in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia on Saturday.

People have been trickling out of Mariupol for over two months, but the recent evacuation was the single biggest out of the city thus far. Russian troops, who control most of the city, did not allow the convoy to leave for days, but eventually, they relented.

The convoy first traveled to Berbyansky some 80 kilometers to the west, then stopped at other settlements before driving 200 kilometers northwest to Zaporizhzhia. Many refugees told reporters they took “secret detours” to avoid Russian checkpoints and feared every moment of the journey.

Nikolai Pavlov, a 74-year-old retiree, told Reuters he had lived in a basement for a month after his apartment was destroyed.

“We barely made it,” he said. “There were lots of elderly people among us… the trip was devastating. But it was worth it.”

63-year-old Iryna Petrenko also said she had stayed in Mariupol initially to take care of her 92-year-old mother, who subsequently died.

“We buried her next to her house, because there was nowhere to bury anyone,” she said.

Putin’s Plans Go Poorly

In Mariupol, Ukrainian fighters continue to hold the Azovstal steelworks, the only part of the city still under Ukrainian control.

On Sunday, a video emerged appearing to show a hail of projectiles bursting into white, brightly burning munitions over the factory.

The pro-Russian separatist who posted it on Telegram wrote, “If you didn’t know what it is and for what purpose – you could say that it’s even beautiful.”

Turkey is trying to negotiate an evacuation of wounded Ukrainians from the factory, but neither Russia nor Ukraine have agreed to any plan.

After nearly three months of war, Mariupol has been left in ruins, with thousands of civilians reportedly dead.

“In less than 3 month, Mariupol, one of Ukraine’s fastest developing & comfortable cities, was reduced into a heap of charred ruins smelling death, with thousands of people standing in long breadlines and selling their properties out to buy some food. Less than three months,” Illia Ponomarenko, a reporter for The Kyiv Independent, tweeted.

On Sunday, the United Kingdom’s defense ministry estimated that Russia has likely lost a third of its ground invasion forces since the war began.

Moscow is believed to have deployed as many as 150,000 troops in Ukraine.

The ministry added that Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine have “lost momentum” and are “significantly behind schedule.” Moreover, it said Russia failed to achieve substantial territorial gains over the last month while sustaining “consistently high levels of attrition.”

“Under the current conditions, Russia is unlikely to dramatically accelerate its rate of advance over the next 30 days,” the ministry concluded.

Sweden also signaled on Sunday that it will join Finland in applying for NATO membership.

See what others are saying: (The Daily Beast) (U.S. News and World Report) (The Hill)

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Israel Moves to Build Over 4,000 West Bank Settlements as Palestinian Homes Demolished

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The Israeli military is proceeding with a plan to evict at least 1,000 Palestinians from the West Bank.


Settlers Get Ready to Move in

On Thursday, a military planning body in the Israeli-occupied West Bank approved the construction of 4,427 housing units, according to the watchdog group Peace Now.

“The State of Israel took another stumble toward the abyss and further deepened the occupation,” Hagit Ofran, an expert at Peace Now, said via the Associated Press.

The plan is the largest advancement of settlement projects since President Joe Biden took office in the United States.

The U.S. opposes settlement expansion and said as much when the plan was first announced last week, but critics say Washington has done little to pressure Israel to stop.

In a statement, U.N. Mideast envoy Tor Wennesland called the settlements a “major obstacle to peace.”

“Continued settlement expansion further entrenches the occupation, encroaches upon Palestinian land and natural resources, and hampers the free movement of the Palestinian population,” he said.

In October, Israel approved some 3,000 settlement homes despite a U.S. rebuke. There are currently over 130 Israeli settlements in the West Bank harboring almost 500,000 settlers, in addition to the nearly three million Palestinians living in the territory.

Palestinians Pushed Off Their Land

On Wednesday, the same day Israeli soldiers allegedly shot and killed Al-Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, the military demolished at least 18 buildings in the West Bank, including 12 residential ones.

Israel’s supreme court has also ruled that eight Palestinian hamlets can be expelled, potentially leaving at least 1,000 Palestinians homeless.

The area targeted is known as the Masafer Yatta, and its residents say they have been herding animals and practicing traditional desert agriculture there for decades, long before Israel took over the West Bank in 1967. Israel, however, claims there were no permanent structures there before the military designated it a firing zone in the 1980s

“What’s happening now is ethnic cleansing,” Sami Huraini, an activist and a resident of the area, told the Associated Press. “The people are staying on their land and have already started to rebuild.”

See what others are saying: (Associated Press) (Peace Now) (Associated Press)

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