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What the U.K.’s pandemic exam-results fiasco tells us about algorithms and the future

August 17, 2020, 10:31 AM UTC

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Good morning. David Meyer here in Berlin, filling in for Alan.

This pandemic is devastating in many ways, but its long-term impact on children will be one of the most terrible. That much is becoming apparent in the U.K., thanks to a fiasco around pupils’ end-of-schooling “A-level” results.

In the U.K., A-level exam results are the big determinant of university placements. Due to the pandemic, this year’s exams could not take place. So the government introduced a complex grading system that took a variety of factors—teachers’ estimates of how their pupils might have performed in the A-level exams; plus the pupils’ results from their earlier “mock” A-levels; plus information about their schools’ past performance—and ran everything through an algorithm to come up with their final grades.

The result? Downgrading for 280,000 students including, for example, outliers who were excellent performers at otherwise poorly-performing schools—and a boost in results for lackluster pupils at schools that have historically performed well. There is an appeals process, but for many it will come too late; the university places they thought they had earned are already filling up.

In short, many kids feel right now that their lives have been ruined. The result? Legal threats and a political battering for Boris Johnson’s government, plus a revolt within the examination body Ofqual.

So, what can we learn from this?

Firstly, algorithms can have a big impact on people’s lives. And if they go wrong on a massive scale—as many argue happened here—the result can be explosive. Witness these hundreds of kids protesting the debacle with a chant of “F—k the algorithm.” Many of today’s A-level students are too young to vote, but they won’t be when the next national election rolls around, several years from now.

Secondly, algorithms can entrench existing biases and inequalities. (See also: the now-scrapped algorithm that was being used by the U.K.’s immigration authorities—whether deliberately or not—to prioritize visa applications for white people.) As the political philosopher Annette Zimmermann wrote about the A-levels furore: “Statistical models often pick up on large-scale historical patterns or racial, gender and class inequalities and replicate them as data patterns, while simultaneously endowing these patterns with an air of certainty, neutrality and objectivity.”

Thirdly, if an algorithm is going to be used for automated decision-making, it has to be easy and meaningful to appeal that decision. That rule is part of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and it may have been broken in this case.

And finally, a return to the start of this essay: kids may be less likely to die as a result of COVID-19, but the pandemic is messing up their lives in ways we cannot yet fathom. Many will come out of it with damaged faith in our institutions and establishments—a trend that’s already had plenty to fuel it in recent years.

There really will be no return to our old normality. More news below.

David Meyer


Japanese plunge

All of Japan's Abe-era economic gains have now been wiped out by the pandemic. In Q2, the country's GDP had its biggest quarterly drop on record—27.8% on an annualized basis. By comparison, Japan's slump in Q1 2009, at the height of the Great Financial Crisis, was 17.8%. Now, Japan has had three consecutive quarters of contraction. Economists hope the current quarter will break that trend. Reuters

Pandemic latest

New Zealand, which turns out not to be as coronavirus-free as recently hoped (the source of the latest outbreak remains a mystery), has delayed its national election for four weeks as a result. Meanwhile, South Korea has experienced new church-related infection clusters, Australia has had its deadliest day yet, and Italy and Spain are closing nightclubs because of a resurgence in infections. In the U.S., fatalities have topped 1,000 for five days running now. Bloomberg

Sanofi buy

Sanofi is to pay $3.4 billion to bolster its autoimmune-disease roster, by buying San Francisco-based Principia Biopharma. Principia has a pipeline of BTK inhibitors—drugs that could help treat multiple sclerosis. Sanofi has already had a licensing deal with Principia since 2017, which entails future payments of up to $765 million that could be obviated through the purchase. Financial Times

Belarus and Russia

As protestors continue to call for the ouster of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, following what looks to have been a very rigged election, Russia has offered to send Lukashenko troops on the basis that Belarus is under "external" pressure. Lukashenko claims NATO has been building up a military presence on his border, though NATO denies this. CNBC



Tobacco ban

South Africa has today lifted a tobacco-sales ban that has been in place for four and a half months, ostensibly as a measure to fight the COVID-19 pandemic—critics say the ban was really part of an anti-smoking drive. Whatever the motivation, it mostly succeeded in driving the tobacco trade underground, with most smokers still able to illicitly purchase cigarettes, and without those sales putting much-needed tax in the state's coffers. Fortune

Google Australia

Google has told its Australian users that their data is "at risk" due to the looming introduction of new measures that will make the company pay news outlets for their content. The company is telling its users that it would be forced to give their search data to the news publishers. "The law is set up to give big media companies special treatment and to encourage them to make enormous and unreasonable demands that would put our free services at risk," it claims. Bangkok Post

Gold price

What has motivated the recent surge in gold prices? While goldbugs say it's about the fear of looming inflation, Fortune's Shawn Tully explains that a speculative frenzy is underway (or at least, was until the last week or so.) He writes: "Gold does sometimes outperform equities and fixed income in turbulent times such as in the mid- to late 1970s when the OPEC oil shock pummeled the world economy. In those years, it also temporarily fulfilled the role that fans praise it for, as an inflation hedge. But gold fails in that role more often than it succeeds. It shows no consistency either in anticipating periods of fast-rising prices or in keeping investors whole when inflation takes charge." Fortune

Latest polls

A Wall Street Journal / NBC News poll shows half of registered voters would vote for Joe Biden if the election were to take place now, and just 41% would vote for President Trump. However, the poll found Biden is still viewed more negatively than positively among the broader electorate—it seems his backers are more anti-Trump than pro-Biden. WSJ

This edition of CEO Daily was edited by David Meyer.