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When Algorithms Give Real Students Imaginary Grades


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The lesson is clear: algorithms should not be used to assign student grades.

The International Baccalaureate canceled its usual in-person final exams because of the pandemic, and instead used an algorithm to predict students grades based on an array of student information. Tens of thousands of students protested their computer-assigned grades.

Credit: Kiel Mutschelknaus

Isabel Castañeda's first words were in Spanish. She spends every summer with relatives in Mexico. She speaks Spanish with her family at home. When her school, Westminster High in Colorado, closed for the pandemic in March, her Spanish literature class had just finished analyzing an entire novel in translation, Albert Camus's "The Plague." She got a 5 out of 5 on her Advanced Placement Spanish exam last year, following two straight years of A+ grades in Spanish class.

And yet, she failed her International Baccalaureate Spanish exam this year.

When she got her final results, Ms. Castañeda was shocked. "Everybody believed that I was going to score very high," she told me. "Then, the scores came back and I didn't even score a passing grade. I scored well below passing."

How did this happen? An algorithm assigned a grade to Ms. Castañeda and 160,000 other students. The International Baccalaureate — a global program that awards a prestigious diploma to students in addition to the one they receive from their high schools — canceled its usual in-person final exams because of the pandemic. Instead, it used an algorithm to "predict" students' grades, based on an array of student information, including teacher-estimated grades and past performance by students in each school.

Ms. Castañeda was not alone in receiving a surprising failing grade — tens of thousands of International Baccalaureate students protested their computer-assigned grades online and in person. High-achieving, low-income students were hit particularly hard: many took the exams expecting to earn college credit with their scores and save thousands of dollars on tuition.

From The New York Times
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