As It Happens

How a U.K. student's dystopian story about an algorithm that grades students came true

A British student who wrote an award-winning piece of speculative fiction about a biased algorithm that determines students' grades had her own grades downgraded by an algorithm.

Jessica Johnson predicted aspects of the country's pandemic exams crisis in her award-winning fiction

Jessica Johnson is the 2019 Orwell youth prize senior award winner, and a student at Ashton Sixth Form College in Manchester, U.K. (Submitted by Jessica Johnson)

A British student who wrote an award-winning piece of speculative fiction about a biased algorithm that determines students' grades had her own grades downgraded by an algorithm.

Jessica Johnson of Ashton Sixth Form College in Manchester won a 2019 Orwell Youth Prize for her short story A Band Apart, which imagines a world in which students are categorized into different "bands" that severely limit their future opportunities.

Then an eerily similar situation unfolded in the real world when the U.K. employed an algorithm to calculate students' exam marks during the pandemic, and thousands saw their grades drop below their university admissions requirements — Johnson included. 

"Those grades were given to me on the basis of an algorithm which was completely out of our control … which the government made up somehow," Johnson told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann.

"It was crazy. At first when they introduced an algorithm, it did sort of ring a bell to this story that I'd written."

The government has since thrown out the algorithm-generated grades, swapping them instead for teacher assessments. 

How did this happen?

When the pandemic shut down schools in the U.K. this year, students missed their final exams. 

To calculate students' A-level results — the criteria used for university placement — schools turned to a computer algorithm created by a company called Ofqual.

That algorithm takes several factors into consideration when calculating a student's grade, including the grade their teacher predicted they were likely to receive, the students' own previous performance, and their school's historic results.

Students march to the constituency office of their local lawmaker, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, in South Staffordshire, England on Monday. (Jacob King/PA/The Associated Press)

Many students and critics have pointed out that the algorithm exacerbates existing inequalities in the U.K. 

"By basing it so much around previous school performance, a bright student from an underperforming school was likely to have their results downgraded through no fault of their own," reads an explainer on BBC News.

"Likewise, a school which was in the process of rapid improvement would not have seen this progress reflected in results."

This element of the model also harkens back to Johnson's short story. 

"I based my story on the pre-existing inequalities within the education system in the U.K., and then I added an algorithm and a banding system to turn it into a dystopia," she said.

"When the results came out, and we found out about disadvantaged students perhaps more at risk of this downgrading and therefore being more at risk of their futures being taken away from them, it just reminded me so much of that."

You think that if my exams were based upon this algorithm, I would have had the algorithm explained to me.- Jessica Johnson, student 

If you find the algorithm confusing, you're not alone.

"I've not heard anybody describe it to me," Johnson said. "You think that if my exams were based upon this algorithm, I would have had the algorithm explained to me."

When A-level grades were announced last week, 40 per cent of students had their marks downgraded from the ones their teachers had predicted. 

Some students went down as many as two or three letter grades, and lost their university spots as a result.

This prompted widespread backlash in the U.K., where students took to the streets in protest, some of them shouting: "F--k the algorithm."

Johnson lost the A in English that she needed to attend her school of choice, the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. 

"Because it was out of my control, I just felt a bit disheartened [and] angry," Johnson said. "I was really upset because, you know, I've worked really, really hard for those grades, and they got taken away from me for something I didn't do."

Thanks to the government's policy reversal, Johnson's spot at St. Andrews is now secured. 

Britain's Education Secretary Gavin Williamson apologized for the the 'distress' caused to students and parents. (Hannah McKay/Reuters)

The British government had initially defended the Ofqual system. But on Monday, the education department relented and said students' grades will now be based on their teachers' assessments alone. 

"We worked with Ofqual to construct the fairest possible model, but it is clear that the process of allocating grades has resulted in more significant inconsistencies than can be resolved through an appeals process," Gavin Williamson, the U.K. secretary of state for education, said in a statement.

"I am sorry for the distress this has caused young people and their parents, but hope this announcement will now provide the certainty and reassurance they deserve."

Johnson, meanwhile, is looking forward to starting university in the fall, where she plans to study English, art history and film.

"Which again, is another ironic thing about my whole situation. I got rejected for English, and then a short story that I wrote resembled the situation completely."


Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with Jessica Johnson produced by Kate Cornick. 

 

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?

now