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The grading problem: opaque algorithms and let down students

People sitting taking exam with D,C, or B grade as woman flies by on SAR (subject access request) paper plan to A, A*

I’m sure you’ll have read much about the understandable disappointment and shock at the calculation of this summer’s exam results. Nearly 40% of young people have had their A-level marks downgraded, with a further 97% of GCSE marks expected to follow, based on factors completely outside of their control.

Most alarmingly, the algorithm used to decide the results has determined the grades based upon the previous attainment of students as a whole in that area and school. Instead of education being a vehicle for social mobility, the algorithm has done the exact opposite: engineered social immobility.

This is also a symptom of a much wider, lesser-known problem: the fact that algorithms often decide some of our most important life events based on ‘averages’. Mortgage applications, insurance premiums and flight prices are just a few examples where our data is taken to determine what we’re capable of.

The impact

While this isn’t the first time that algorithms have been used to make choices about people, it’s one of the first times an algorithm has affected so many, to their knowledge, in such a personal way. You could also see the exact difference the algorithm made, comparing your teacher-determined predicted grades against your downgraded ‘actual’ grades.

Many young people also feel powerless, stuck between taking a year out and appealing, sitting their exams with less than a month to prepare, or simply accepting their downgraded results and going to a less academic university.

Even if their appeals are successful, this time for many has been messy, stressful and deeply upsetting.

How we can help

We’ve had a lot of discussions as a team to work out what we might be able to do to help. If a student wants to appeal because they’ve been treated unfairly, they need to go through the official processes. While this should definitely still happen, they may be able to strengthen their appeal by gathering more evidence, to demonstrate how inaccurate the estimation of their ability was.

A subject access request, which is a written request you can send to any organisation asking to see all of the personal data that they hold on you, can do just that. If you send a request to your school or the exam boards, they must give you all of the information they hold on you, including what went into determining your grades.

We’ve set up a specific page for you to do this using our entirely free service here. If you can’t find the school or organisation that you want to send a request to, just get in touch and we’ll make sure it’s added to the system.

Hoping we can be in some help during this trying time, and wishing all of this summer’s students all the best with their results,


Founder of Rightly