Ofqual advisor: Prioritising grade inflation was a political decision

The government is said to have instructed the exam regulator not to allow sharp rises in attainment.

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Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has attempted to deflect responsibility from the government amid the chaos of the A-level results debacle, but an independent Ofqual advisor says that the decision to prioritise limiting grade inflation came from on high and that the government was kept informed about the development of the algorithm.

“It is for [politicians] to give Ofqual the remit, and once they’ve done that Ofqual has parameters to work in,” Jo-Anne Baird, a member of the independent advisory group that worked with Ofqual on developing the statistical model used to calculate this year’s grades, told NS Tech. She adds that “it’s a political direction when you prioritise preventing grade inflation”.

On Monday, Williamson claimed that he was only made aware of the potential pitfalls of the algorithm for the first time “over the weekend”, however Baird says that Ofqual “made sure government was informed along the way”. The Guardian reports that government sources also say concerns were raised earlier.

The insistence on preventing grade inflation is echoed in a letter sent from Williamson to head of Ofqual Sally Collier on 31 March, where the former stressed the importance that Ofqual “ensure, as far as is possible, that qualification standards are maintained and the distribution of grades follows a similar profile to that in previous years”.

This emphasis led to the development of a model which was found to disproportionately inflate the scores of pupils from independent schools – primarily due to the smaller class size and the use of historical performance data – and push down the scores of pupils attending schools in disadvantaged areas.

Despite the seemingly shambolic approach to the A-level exams and subsequent screeching U-turn, Baird says that the whole approach was “really professionally done”, something she admits may seem “surprising” given the fall-out. “[Ofqual] involved quite a wide range of stakeholders and consulted quite widely […],” she says.

She says the body and its advisors carried out an intensive process of comparing statistical models and that Ofqual worked “hand in glove” with the exam board to develop the algorithm.

“The Secretary of State’s remit to Ofqual was to produce a system that didn’t have significant increases in the results from previous years,” says Baird, which meant they weren’t able to use teachers’ predicted grades. “There needed to be some moderation and the only way that can be done is statistically, which leads you to then look for the best statistical model.”

Transparency data for the Department of Education published on Wednesday shows that at the most recent meeting for which minutes are available, on 4 June, exams weren’t discussed at all. By contrast, debate over when to reopen schools made the agenda.

Chair of Ofqual Roger Taylor is also chair of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (CDEI), leading to speculation that CDEI was somehow involved in the process of developing the A-levels results algorithm. CDEI is a body that was set up by the government and whose remit involves advising the government on the adoption of data-driven technology and artificial intelligence. It claims to be independent.

Part of CDEI’s role is examining how algorithms and AI can be used ethically. It was due to publish a report into algorithmic bias earlier this year but it has been postponed, ostensibly due to the coronavirus crisis.

Previous CDEI reports have been critiqued for their commercial focus, with Sam Smith, policy lead at Medconfidential, an advocacy group for health data privacy, previously telling NS Tech that the body is “basically a fig leaf for whatever government thinks it might want to do with data”.

CDEI has two contracts with Faculty AI, a company that has links to Vote Leave and Dominic Cummings, for research “analysing, assessing and comparing the various approaches to bias mitigation”.

Given CDEI’s contracts with Faculty and the fact that Faculty’s chief operating officer Richard Sargeant holds a place on the CDEI board, there has also been speculation that the Faculty might have played a role in developing the A-levels algorithm. This is something Faculty has denied to NS Tech. CDEI told NS Tech that it did not play a role in the development of the algorithm either.

Ofqual told NS Tech that the algorithm was developed in-house with consultation from exam boards and independent advisors.

This article originally appeared on the NS Tech website

Laurie Clarke is a reporter at New Statesman Tech.

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