Algorithmic Amnesia

The grade calculation cock-up has broken students’ belief in what they have achieved. This is more important than whether it is ministers, civil servants or Ofqual who should be held accountable. We need to celebrate the achievements of this generation properly to correct this rite of passage, and introduce them to adulthood with a little more grace.

Coming of age
All societies have ways of passing on their values to the young. There are key moments when we communicate their worth. This might be a religious ceremony like a Bar Mitzvah, or a more secular coming of age like a school Awards Ceremony. Families gather around proudly. Or we hear from a visiting speaker who tells us not to worry about exams because they failed, and look where they are now.

Since ancient times young people have experienced a three part rite of passage: separation from the community, the liminal transition period where a girl and a boy are not quite woman or man, and the final incorporation where they re-enter society, clothed with their new status. This is the celebration period: end of year proms, award ceremonies, passing driving tests, university graduation and balls. Family gifts are showered, outward symbols of the new standing in the community.

Grade grace
In education we perform this function through the ritual of awarding grades. The combination of giving grades and the subsequent national reaction and hand-wringing is the peculiarly British way that we communicate to young people what matters.

When the dust settles on the fiasco of the last two weeks, we need to remember that most of our sixteen, eighteen and our twenty-one year olds did not choose not to sit their exams. Most say they are frustrated that while they didn’t face the pressure-cooker of revision, they missed out on the physical act of writing their exams. They hear the message of comparison with other cohorts and it stings.

Grades can be calculated in all sorts of ways. But there is only one way in which they should be given. Not grudgingly and not following a series of U turns.


Instead, not only was the awarding process botched, but the fleeting moment of award was tarnished too. It highlights something wrong with a system where the desperation to avoid exam inflation (see Laura McInerney’s piece here) led logically to human deflation. This was the perfect moment to recognise the culmination of a twelve, fourteen or sixteen-year learning journey. The work they had put in alongside teachers and parents. There was a golden opportunity for grace, to recognise the impact of the crisis, and they fluffed it.

Unfair comparison
“Can we trust the school grades?” was the hidden message. Making meaningful comparisons is always tricky. False equivalence is a mistaken reasoning where two things are being compared, which are in reality not comparable. Here are two well-known examples:

Firstly, Isaac Asimov’s classic story, The Relativity of Wrong, demonstrates how people may believe two separate things are equally bad, or equally good. “When people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the Earth was spherical they were wrong (it is elliptical). But if you think that thinking the Earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the Earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.” Here the equivalence exaggerates the degree of similarity between the things being compared.

Secondly, in the 2016 presidential election, American voters were told to “pick the lesser of two evils,” despite there being a gulf between Hillary Clinton’s long history of being a senator and secretary of state, compared with someone who had never held public office and had a long history of legal issues. Harvard Kennedy School found that the amount of negative media coverage was identical for both, even though Trump had issues of greater magnitude than Clinton. Here, the equivalence (and the voters) ignored differences in orders of magnitude between the things being equated.

In normal times students are compared through a combination of academic achievements, personal skill and daily character. Adults size pupils up by assessing their grades, weighing up their talents and gauging what they can be trusted with. These comparisons are important and sensible, because they help us make real judgments about whether the person in front of us is suitable for a particular job, can manage technical difficulty or will take good care of our children for the evening.

In unusual times the metrics of comparison necessarily flex, the scales shift. Each generation is compared with the last until something big happens. The generation growing up in 1940’s Britain were in a different place to the previous decade, and young people had a different set of demands thrown at them. No one was comparing the pre-O Level ‘School Certificate’ results with the generation before, when everyone knew children in cities had spent long evenings hiding from air raid sirens and falling bombs, instead of completing maths homework.

If this pandemic really is the biggest crisis since the second world war, when the public conversation came round to exams we should have applied the same crisis-thinking, instead of replacing it with algorithmic amnesia.

Trying to compare 2020 results with last year, where the conditions were dramatically different, exaggerates the degree of similarity. Trying to compare 2020 results with last year, ignores the order of magnitude between the things being equated. If Roosevelt was giving the 2020 Award Ceremony speech, he would remind students today that “comparison is the thief of joy, especially when it is an unfair one.

This does not mean that the concept of sitting exams is broken. Neither does it mean that we should not award grades. Don’t misunderstand me. Achieving your grades is an incredibly significant personal landmark. We all spend years getting to this point and should be made to feel immensely proud, but blind norm-referencing, pitting our students against each other, deciding which 30% will fail before it begins, dilutes this. Instead of playing to win, we make our students play not to lose, and if this is what education is reduced to then we are in trouble.

When this year’s crop sit in an interview room, comparisons with 2019 will prove of no interest to the person sitting opposite asking questions. How do you think your English grade 5 equates with last year’s grade 5?” is not a question they’ll be asked. “How did you cope learning independently?” maybe, or perhaps, “What did you learnt about yourself?” Any boss who doesn’t get this is not someone they want to work for.

Our scared examination system reminds me of the story of two friends being chased by a bear, when one turns to the other and says: “I just realised I don’t need to outrun the bear; I only need to outrun you.”

Who is it exactly, in our exams race, that are our young people running from?

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