Stephen Coyle

Exam results

There's a complete fiasco currently underway regarding A-level results in the UK. In short, given the inability to run conventional exams, teachers were charged with predicting students' grades based on their academic performance to date, and subsequently an algorithm was applied to massage these predictions into some semblance of a normal statistical distribution.

There's an endless rabbit hole of ways in which this was a bad idea. Much of the furore around this centers (rightly so) on the institutional bias against state schools and particularly those with students from predominantly low-income or otherwise disadvantaged backgrounds. Put simply, because those schools historically tend to skew lower in terms of academic performance, their students' grades were lowered. Conversely, those from so-called public schools, whose results are typically above average, had their already-privileged students' results boosted. This system disallows standout students based nakedly on geographical and financial factors. Where previously, a hard working student with a tough personal life, who 'against the odds' gets all As was viewed as a shining example, this approach treats them as a statistical aberration to be ironed out. This is unfair and damaging, to say the least.

While this is a really odious development, I don't think this represents a shift away from equality and fairness, though. My opinion is that this is a completely logical extension of what has always been true about the education system (in Britain and Ireland anyway, I can't speak for others). These systems have always heavily discriminated against those from disadvantaged backgrounds, or those who for whatever reason are judged not to be cut out for academic greatness. The system instead favours the questionably valuable skill of exam-passing, and rote learning, whose efficacy corresponds mostly to the strictness of one's parents and the expensiveness of one's tutors.

Rather than introducing clear and unfair biases, the exam process of 2020 simply exposes those which have been there all along.