Grading Algorithms Are Fucking Over the Futures of International Students

Illustration for article titled Grading Algorithms Are Fucking Over the Futures of International Students
Photo: Andrei Pungovsch (Getty Images)

As any high school senior can probably attest, prepping for college sucks. The global pandemic has made it even more of a stressful nightmare. In some cases, these seniors are relying on a faulty algorithm to decide whether they’ll be able to take classes this fall.

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According to Wired, an algorithm designed by the International Baccalaureate (IB) program—a college prep course designed for students planning to study abroad—abandoned its normal end-of-year exams in favor of letting an algorithm determine what students’ scores should be. And, as algorithms tend to do, the IB fucked up. Badly.

To break down the IB tests a bit, there are roughly 5,000 schools around the world—with more than 2,000 in the US—that currently partner with the program. When these schools are weighing whether or not to take a high school hopeful for the coming semester, they take the IB’s scores into account—similarly to how colleges evaluate Advanced Placement test scores in the States. And while an AP grade is typically judged alone, an IB grade is calculated by taking classwork and exam grades into account.

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The in-person IB exams that were supposed to happen this past spring were canceled due to the global covid-19 pandemic, leaving the Geneva-based program with the question of how, exactly, it could properly quiz the close to 200,000 students who were scheduled to take the exam. And rather than allow them to, I don’t know, take the same quiz online, those who decide things turned to an algorithm to tally what students’ scores might’ve been if they actually took the exam. When those AI-calculated scores were released this week, they were far lower than what local teachers or professors had expected, Wired reported. About 15,000 students even signed a petition asking the IB to rethink their algorithms, after many had their offers and scholarships revoked.

An IB spokesperson told one Arabic outlet that “the final grades were based on pupils’ coursework throughout the year, along with grading data provided by the schools—and if that was lacking, pooled data from other schools in the area.”

The spokesperson added that, in spite of the thousands of students and teachers rallying against them, the IB is “confident” that the grades that were given are fair.

It’s kind of bizarre watching the IB vouch for an algorithm that might’ve, in some cases, given a normally A+ student a failing grade because students at their school (or hell, all schools) happened to have a bad semester. As any high schooler will tell you, that’s not how grades work. 

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Many of the students affected by the algorithm’s fuck-up are looking to take what’ll (hopefully) be a makeup IB exam in November. However, if covid keeps their schools closed—and if the IB refuses to admit that the algorithm was not a good idea—there’s a good chance those students will be stuck with the same shitty score based on the same shitty algorithm they were the first time around.

I cover the business of data for Gizmodo. Send your worst tips to swodinsky@gizmodo.com.

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