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Learn the secret algorithm that keeps students away from college



The 18 year old Anahita Nagpal Plans to start training as a doctor in the fall are in ruins. She accuses a statistical model.

Nagpal, who lives in Göttingen, was offered an early study place and a scholarship at NYU. Both were withdrawn this week after performing worse than expected on their International Baccalaureate diploma, a two-year high school program recognized by colleges and attended by more than 170,000 students this year, most in the United States .

Teenage regret for grades is not uncommon, but the basis for the IB diploma program was the calculation of this year’s grades. The results, released on Monday, were determined using a formula that IB, the foundation of the program, used hastily after the usual spring tests due to Covid-1

9 were canceled. The system used signals, including a student’s grades for assignments and grades from previous graduates from his school, to predict what he would have achieved if the pandemic had not been prevented by personal testing.

Nagpal and many other students, parents and teachers say these predictions have failed. Many students received suspiciously low scores, which destroyed their plans for the fall and beyond. Nagpal’s backup plan, in case she missed NYU, was medical school in Germany, but her grades below expectations don’t allow that either. “Like so many, I was extremely shocked,” she says. “Basically, I can’t learn what I want anywhere else.”

More than 15,000 parents, students and teachers have signed an online petition asking IB to “take a different approach with their evaluation algorithm and make it fairer”. The foundation declined to answer questions about its system, but said that it had been compared to the results of the past five years and that disappointed students could use the existing appointment process, which involves a fee. The foundation released summary statistics showing that the average score this year was slightly higher than last year and that the distribution of grades was similar.

A math teacher at a Middle Eastern school says IB should disclose the full functionality of its model for an external exam. He and a colleague with a PhD in mathematics have been concerned about the design as several students lost scholarships to top universities after receiving results that were far below their teachers’ expectations. Some students are not sure how to pay college. “My only guess is a faulty model,” he says.

Concern about erroneous mathematical models is growing as more companies and governments use computers to address traditionally human issues such as bail decisions, suspect identification, and hate speech decisions. Eliminating bias and inaccuracy in such systems is a growing field of activism and science.

People who question IB’s algorithm-derived grades now pose some of the same problems. You wonder how the system was designed and tested, why its operation wasn’t fully disclosed, and whether it makes sense to use a formula to determine the grades that can affect a person’s life chances.

When Covid-19 conquered the world in March, many teenagers were in a precarious position in their final school year. Shelter-in-place orders made it difficult or impossible to complete the final tasks or tests that could determine your college and life choices.

Test providers have tried to develop new methods for evaluating students. In the United States, the Educational Testing Service, which provides the GRE, and the College Board, which conducts the AP exams, have put their tests online. That brought with it quirks and glitches – for example, that students have to take their tests at the same time regardless of the time zone and repetitions due to technical errors – but it seemed to be an appearance of the normal process.

IB, headquartered in Geneva, opted instead to use a statistical formula to expand the growing list of proposed technical fixes to automate the effects of the pandemic. The way the IB Diploma works – and the timing of the results – has proven particularly harmful to IB students applying to US colleges. Unlike AP tests, which are usually separate from school grades, the IB results are intended to reflect a student’s work for the year. IB students often get admission to college based on the predicted grades and submit their final results when they are available in the summer. Some colleges, including NYU and Northeastern, warn on their admissions pages that students whose IB results don’t come close enough to these predictions may lose their place.

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In normal times, IB diploma students choose six subjects from options such as physics and philosophy and receive final grades, which are determined partly by tasks, but mostly by written tests in the spring. The program is offered by nearly 900 public schools in the United States and is distributed at international schools around the world. In March, IB canceled all tests and said that each student’s final grades were calculated using a method developed by an undisclosed educational organization that specializes in data analysis.


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