The UK conducted a wild pandemic experiment by letting an algorithm grade teens' exam results, and outraged students want to sue over bias


A student is threatening to sue the UK government over an algorithm used to determine the final grades of school leavers in the absence of formal examinations during the pandemic.

Curtis Parfitt-Ford, a student at a comprehensive school in London, is working with the justice non-profit Foxglove to initiate legal proceedings this week if the UK government does not change its policy. 

Parfitt-Ford says he's happy with his own results, but says people in his school have been affected by their grades being downgraded by the algorithm. The results were published on Thursday, and have caused national outcry.

"The government has a lot of explaining to do to all the young people whose futures have been really, really impacted by this," Parfitt-Ford told Business Insider.

During a chaotic 72 hours, the UK government has tried to justify the process it has used to determine final results in a year where students have been unable to sit exams thanks to the pandemic.

These results affect which universities students will — or won't — attend.

The UK's education regulator, Ofqual, has explained how the grading process, aka the algorithm, works in a 300-page technical document. Broadly, it relies on two things: the school's own assessment of how an individual student should do; and wider information on how the school did on exam results in prior years.

There was likely never a perfect solution for grading a cohort of students who didn't take exams. But this second part of the algorithm has been widely criticized for penalizing outliers — bright students at disadvantaged schools — thanks to that reliance on data about a school's historical performance. Critics say teachers' assessments are a better reflection of a student's academic merit.

"These problems happen when there isn't transparency in algorithmic decisions," said Cori Crider, director at Foxglove, which is helping with Parfitt-Ford's legal challenge. "They're these problems are only being discovered by outside advisors basically now."

A quarter of a million students had their results downgraded thanks to the algorithm

According to figures from the exam regulator Ofqual, 40% of teacher assessments on an individual's grades were downgraded, amounting to almost 280,000 students and costing many their university places. (The government has disputed this interpretation.)

"A computer programme has determined the life chances of thousands and thousands and thousands of British kids," added Crider. "[And] it's turned out to be designed in a way that is biased and unfair."

On Sunday, thousands of students gathered at Westminster, London outside the Department for Education to protest their results. At one point, they chanted: "Fuck the algorithm."

The algorithm favors expensive private schools, which have smaller classes

UK protest exam results algorithm
Youth protests at Parliament square against a new exam rating system which has been introduced in British education system - London, England on August 16 2020.
Dominika Zarzycka/NurPhoto via Getty Images

For students in classes of 15 or fewer, the grade predictions given to students by their teachers were given weight, meaning that the student's actual academic performance was taken into account. In classes of fewer than five pupils, these teacher predictions were given as the final grade.

As fee-paying independent schools are far more likely to have smaller class sizes, this means that students from more affluent backgrounds are more likely to have been judged on their own academic merits.

"It's particularly disadvantaging that especially bright kids from the underperforming school who is on track to get that school's first A* in Maths. That kid was totally stuffed by this algorithm," said Crider. "Whereas if you went to a tiny little independent fee-paying school and studied classics, a lot more often, you were fine."

Under the current system, students themselves are not able to appeal their results directly.

Students' only options are to sit the exams later this year, or for the school to appeal on their behalf by providing evidence that the performance of previous cohorts is no longer representative. 

Confusingly, the exam regulator over the weekend issued guidance on how schools could appeal, then withdrew it the same day.

Parfitt-Ford and Foxglove want at minimum to enable students to appeal directly on the basis of their individual academic merit for free. Historically appeals to exam boards can cost students upwards of £100 ($130) if their grade remains unchanged, discriminating against students from poorer backgrounds. 

Critics are hoping for a government U-turn similar to the one seen in Scotland earlier this month. Scottish students are now able to appeal and get teacher predictions as their final grade after a public outcry forced a change in policy after the results had been announced. 

But even this may have negative consequences. In the rest of the UK, university places are already filling up fast and whatever changes are made could come too late. Offers for university places are often "conditional", meaning they are contingent on a student achieving their predicted grades.

"I'm not entirely sure there is a best-case scenario at this stage," said Parfitt-Ford, adding that it's frustrating that earlier action was not taken. "The fact is, if I could see that happening a week in advance, then I'm more than sure that people in government could see that happening a lot more than a week in advance." 

He adds: "We have to get that appeals system in, because not doing so is to provide an injustice that not only affects students now, but will affect students for the rest of their lives."

Parfitt-Ford has already launched an online petition, which has accrued almost 250,000 signatures at the time of writing, and a crowdfund campaign to pay for legal proceedings.

The debate over the UK's exam results is part of a wider battle against algorithm-driven government decision making with in-built biases.

On 4 August, Foxglove won the first-ever case against a UK government algorithm that was being used by the Home Office to grade visa applications.

During the pandemic, it also brought a successful transparency challenge against the handover of NHS data to US tech giants like Apple and Google. 

"[We're] concerned that these systems are being rolled out with no transparency and with a total democratic deficit," says Crider. 

A Department of Education spokesman told Sky on Sunday after a weekend of confusion: " "Hundreds of thousands of students have received a calculated grade that will enable them to progress to the next stage of their education or into work.

"We have been clear that we want to build as much fairness into the appeals process as possible to help young people in the most difficult cases and have been working with Ofqual to achieve that.

"Ofqual continues to consider how to best deliver the appeals process to give schools and pupils the clarity they need."