Standardization and movable goal posts: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

Earlier this year, in a King Kong meets Godzilla moment, Covid-19 ate the end-of-year standardized tests that older Britain’s students would normally have taken. For kids who were applying to universities, that meant–ack!–they had no test grades to submit. 

But they didn’t have no grades at all, because every year teachers estimate the grades their students can expect to get on the standardized tests, and kids submit those with their applications. Then they take the tests and submit the actual scores, which (or so I’ve read) are on average lower than the predicted grades. 

So what’s a sober, responsible education system to do when the actual tests can’t be taken? Why, make up a system as it goes along, of course. 

Scotland ran up against this first, since (limited) power over the schools has been devolved to the governments of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Scotland’s solution was to use an algorithm–because algorithms are fair, unbiased, don’t run for office, and don’t leave crumbs under their desks–to compare students’ predicted grades with the grades students from their schools got in previous years and with the lifecycle of the common earthworm. After the algorithm had ruminated for microseconds, it spit out corrected grades for everyone.

Irrelevant photo. Montbretia, a flower that spreads like mad and chases gardeners through their dreams.

And what happened? Lo and behold, the poorer (or in other ways the more disadvantaged) the families of the kids you went to school were, the more points you lost. Because guess what: Kids from your school just don’t do that well on standardized tests, so be realistic, you wouldn’t have either. 

All predictable hell broke loose, and the Scottish government backed down. The predicted grades will stand.

Then the hot potato was thrown to England, Wales, and Northern Ireland

How can you throw a hot potato simultaneously to three countries? Through the magic of privatization, that’s how. Our politicians can make one potato into three and lower taxes on corporations and the richest 1% all at the same time.

Okay, I’ll come clean: Privatization has nothing to do with this. I just slipped it in because I like to blame things on privatization. And I’m right often enough that the habit gets reinforced. See below.

England is saying students can accept the grades “based on teacher estimations” (there’s a lot of wiggle room in there, so I’m relying on quotation marks to keep everything in place), or swap them for the marks they got on their mock exams. Or they can take the test in the fall. 

Assuming that reality doesn’t intervene and cancel the tests again, although no one seems to be talking about that, at least not publicly.

Of course, that means this coming academic year goes straight into the trash.

Head teachers (if you’re American, read that as principals), though, are saying that mock exams aren’t graded in any consistent way. And some schools canceled mock exams when they saw the pandemic headed for them, so their kids have none to fall back on.

Wales says its modeling is fair, and nearly half of its student grades are based on AS levels. AS levels are a related test taken earlier that I’m not going to try to explain because, c’mon, I don’t really understand this stuff either. Just nod soberly and no one will know how lost you are. 

Northern Ireland is saying it’ll let students appeal their grades on the basis of their mock exam scores. 

I can’t explain why universities aren’t stepping up and saying, “We’re not taking any of this seriously and we’ll be making our own judgements on the basis of [fill in the blank].” Maybe there’s nothing to slot into that blank. I’m too distant from the British educational system to tell you anything useful. You can almost hear them getting ready to say, “Nothing to do with me, your honor.”

Everyone who writes about this is required to use the phrase moving the goal posts. So think of Britain as a country of four nations (which aren’t necessarily getting along well at the moment), and in each of those nations two people are running and random directions, struggling to keep goal posts upright and the space between them more or less even, because if you lose that relationship they’re not goal posts anymore, they’re just posts.


So much for the kids (or former kids) who’ve graduated. Let’s turn our jaded attention to the kids who are due back in school: Summer’s winding down and the government’s hell bent to get them back into the classroom. Because education matters and a generation is in danger of being lost. Because (somewhat less nobly) parents can’t go back to work until their kids can be safely stashed someplace. Because (still less nobly than that) the nation’s sandwich and coffee shops can’t sell sandwiches and coffee until office workers are poured back into their cubicles and deskicles. Without people pouring in and out of buildings, city centers are dying.

Spellcheck, in case you’re interested, doesn’t object to the word deskicle. What’s on earth has happened in the working world since I left? Are people really working at deskicles?

Schools will be safe, the government tells us. The kids will wash their hands and magical incantations will be both incanted and decanted over the school grounds at the start of each school day. Five-year-olds will be reminded every hour on the hour not to touch anything.

Oh, hell, don’t worry about the details. It’ll be fine.

And while that’s being released to the press, what should happen but that a couple of new bits of information appear, from the U.S. and Israel, about kids and the virus.

From a summer camp in Georgia comes the news that younger kids get infected as well as older ones. As the Center for Disease Control so poetically put it, “The findings demonstrate that Sars-CoV-2 spreads efficiently in a youth-centric overnight setting, resulting in high attack rates among persons in all age groups, despite efforts by camp officials to implement most recommended strategies to prevent transmission. . . .

“This investigation adds to the body of evidence demonstrating that children of all ages are susceptible to Sars-CoV-2 infection and, contrary to early reports, might play an important role in transmission.”

Israel had been fairly effective in clamping down on the virus, but in May it reopened its schools. By the end of the month, it had closed a hundred of them and ordered thousands of students and staff to quarantine. 

Epidemiologist William Hanage said, “If community transmission is low, the costs to kids of keeping schools closed are much greater than keeping them open.

“However if community transmission is high or increasing, opening schools can only add to it. It’s not clear by how much.” 

So nothing’s certain yet, but the reports are sobering. 

What does the government tell us? The education secretary, Gavin Williams, said on Monday that opening the schools carried few risks. And Public Health England, having apparently said in an unpublished study that older kids were more likely than younger ones to get and transmit the disease, publicly said that reports that it has recommended tougher rules for older kids were incorrect. Also wrong. And false. Did I mention false? 

“Parents can be reassured that to [blah blah blah] an extremely stringent system of controls by” et cetera. Also and so forth. 

It’ll all be fine. 


A health minister, Edward Argar, told the world (or as much of it as was listening) that Britain’s system of tracing the contacts of infected people is almost as good as New Zealand’s

“We’ve traced a quarter of a million in the space of about two and half months . . .” he said. “Look at New Zealand, they have a slightly higher percentage success rate, they’ve traced 360 people.

New Zealand’s population is 4.8 million. England’s is 56 million. Last I checked, New Zealand had had a total of 1,570 cases compared to England’s 270,000. So yeah. We’re hardly behind them at all.

On the other hand, New Zealand has 26.7 million sheep.

Argar–and this, of course, is no more relevant than the sheep or the photo I dropped in at the top this post–is a former lobbyist for Serco, which runs the £108 million test and trace system. The system that only managed to contact a little over half the people in the same household as folks who’d tested positive. 

In the same household. They’d do a better job if they called the sheep.

Someone has leaked a memo from Public Health England in which they approached Serco about the test and trace contract. No bids were taken from other companies.

But it’s worth mentioning that Argar has also served in the Justice Department, and that Serco runs five private prisons and a prisoner escort service. The justice secretary, David Gauke, felt he needed to reassure the world at large that there wouldn’t be any conflict of interest.

So settle down, cynics of the world. It’s all in good hands.

My thanks to Bear Humphries and Annie Robinson for letting me know about the esteemed Mr. Argar.


What’s the story on Russia’s vaccine? Skeptics point out that they’ve skipped phase III trials–the ones that look for side effects and measure its effectiveness, preferably in the widest possible sample of the population. The phase that generally takes months. 

So it’s not clear either how safe or how useful the vaccine will be. Russian officials say they hope its antibody response will last for as long as two years. Skeptics point out that no one knows much about how long Covid antibodies last or what protection they offer, and they worry that a partially effective vaccine could lead governments and people to abandon efforts to suppress the virus. 

Professor of immunology Danny Altmann said, “The collateral damage from release of any vaccine that was less than safe and effective would exacerbate our current problems insurmountably. . . . We are all in this together.”

Vladimir Putin’s daughter has taken a dose. Make of that what you will.

53 thoughts on “Standardization and movable goal posts: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

  1. British students will also have the option of taking their test in autumn ;-) (Sorry, Ellen, the Devil makes me do it.)
    On a more positive note and marginally related to sheep, it’s possible alpacas may spit in the face of Putin and save us all yet. “Alpacas and animals like them actually create two different types of antibodies. One is similar to the type we [humans] make, but they also create these things called nanobodies. It’s these nanobodies the researchers are seeking to use to see if we can fight the COVID-19 virus.”

    Liked by 2 people

    • Not to take anything away from the complexity, but I’m sure if you’d grown up in it, you wouldn’t be able to imagine it being any different. When I was in school, I never stopped to think that the rest of the world didn’t organize education in the same way.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I think this is a no-win situation. Exam results in Scotland are up 14% on last year, now that they’ve decided to un-moderate them. With all due respect to kids who were due to do Highers this year, it’s not very likely that they were 14% better than the kids in the year above them. But I can also see that kids were upset after being told that they’d get the grades predicted by their teachers … although I don’t quite understand why everyone seems to know what their teachers said. Wouldn’t it have made more sense for that to be confidential? And now the National Union of Students has said that it’s all racist. How exactly is it racist?

    Whatever the exam boards and the Department of Education say is going to be wrong.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I can’t explain why it is racist because I don’t know any details, but I can explain why it might well be. Systems have bias built into them–often unintentionally but no less powerfully. No one (I hope) intended the algorithm that adjusted predicted grades to work against what they’re politely calling disadvantaged schools, but they did. Many studies have shown that teachers are biased, often unconsciously, even unwillingly. So their predictions can easily be affected by the biases of the society they live and work within.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. Oh, I don’t know. I’m getting so close to the point where I just say oh, I can’t be bothered with all this anymore. Just get on with it. But then I remember it’s all about not dying from a rather nasty disease, and remind myself to pay attention. Then I start thinking about the government and incompetence and vested interests and then I get cross with people again and start ranting.


    Liked by 2 people

  4. Universities no longer interview prospective students, and base thier offers of places simply on the predicted grades and on a personal statement supposedly written by the prospective student but usually written by their teacher or thier mum. For a course is, say, 300 students they will make 600 offers of places and let the final A level results weed the extra kids out. Great system, eh????

    Liked by 2 people

    • Faultless. I seem to remember a day when your classroom grades also mattered. Does anyone even look at those anymore? Admittedly, different schools may well have different standards, and different teachers ditto, but the do seem like something a school’d want to know about.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I got confused reading that — then I realised that you are using school to mean university! They get some sort of reference from the secondary school too, I don’t know its format. The key thing is the final A-level grades. In 2015, the marking was suddenly much stricter and many students didn’t get the grades that they had been asked for by their prospective university. For example, my eldest was supposed to get AAB but got BCD. However the university sees the grades several days before the students and most took the stricter marking into account. Eldest got the place he wanted, went on to get First Class Honours and a Masters. So phew, but it’s a crazy system. In my day the university interviewed applicants. Which could of course allow bias to creep in. Far fewer working class or black kids got to university then. Although I did despite my Dad’s factory job!

        Liked by 1 person

        • I was so busy trying not to say “college” for “university” that it didn’t occur to me that “school” would be confusing. Another hundred years and we won’t be speaking the same language at all. But then, we won’t have to worry about it.

          I can see the problem of bias in interviews. Eliminating bias in a system seems to be an endless problem. You close off one place it leaks in and in finds another. In the US, many years ago, standardized tests were introduced with the idea of spotting (if I remember my history correctly) bright working class kids. But the tests turned out to have their own bias built in. I don’t know how effectively any system predicts how well someone will do in university. I suspect none of them, but that’s probably just me being cynical. I’m glad your eldest beat the predictors.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m scheduled to start back teaching in 3.5 weeks (with 5 – 11 year olds) and I’m nervous. I just saw this online: I love how we as a country watched adults fail miserably at social distancing but are convinced kindergarteners will figure it out.”

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Contact tracing ! ? ! What ! That might prove our apprentice cockwomble had contact with the Russians ! We will have none of that. Besides he who used to brag about 5th Avenue has moved into the meat packing plants and emergency rooms. Now he is working on bumping off kids in school. Oh and cancelling tests… why worry about that when you can shut down the post office and cancel elections ? I do hope we can fire the apprentice cockwomble ! I do ! I do ! I do ! Lions and tigers and cockwombles Oh My ! There is no such thing as a zombie cockwomble is there ?

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I confess to being giddy at Biden’s selection of Senator Kamala Harris as his Veep nominee so I am once again optimistic that our country will potentially have adults in the West Wing who can make complete sentences without relying on the words “greatest” and “nasty.”
    As for education, I look forward to a new Education Secretary with personal credentials beyond an undergraduate degree from Calvin University, a private Christian university in Michigan, and a high school diploma from Holland Christian High School. I question whether DeVos can even count sheep when the number reaches double digits, and I am certain she cares not about the welfare of the children she insists must ride crowded buses to sit in unsafe classrooms.
    Let them eat cake.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Friends told me a while back that lawn signs started appearing saying, “Any responsible adult.” At this point, that’s who I’ll vote for, so Biden/Harris it is. But let’s not judge people on the basis of their ability to count into double digits. I run into trouble there myself.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Stay safe and strong. We all need it nowadays both for survival and sanity. We are talking about should we get the vaccine too in our works. Less than few months of clinical trials without knowing the long term side effects is a life matter question . Most of us decided not to get the vaccine and see how it plays out once it happens. We can’t be part of the guinea pigs. I Survive the pandemic since it started, I can wait a bit longer & just use PPE & do the guidelines.

    Liked by 1 person

      • The influenza A & B yearly vaccine took time to be safe and effective and only works 40-60%. I see people get Flu despite of vaccine while others who never got vaccine never got sick. COVID19 behaves like it’s a man made highly mutating virus. Just 2 days ago, the list of symptoms to ask patients whether that may have the virus expanded to even include a very common nasal congestion & runny. It’s mimicking many of our common ailments.

        Liked by 1 person

        • From what I read, Covid isn’t mutating much, especially considering that viruses do commonly mutate quickly. It’s been surprisingly stable. But they’re still adding symptoms to the list because it’s so new. Think of it this way: their understanding of it is mutating rapidly. Nothing I’ve read makes a convincing case for it being anything but a virus that jumped from wildlife to humans.

          Liked by 1 person

  9. One of the schools in Georgia that reopened fully on time now has 1100 students and staff in quarantine. Not a good indication of the South rising again.

    Speaking from my own experience as both a giver and a taker of standardized tests: some kids who are indifferent students do wonderfully on tests. Other kids who get straight A’s freeze at the idea of a test and do (comparatively) poorly. The idea of averaging based on an entire school is a real crapshoot. But maybe it’ll average out. “It is what it is” you know.
    Beyond that, Sheila Morris pretty much spoke for me.,
    I’d sweat I commented on your last post but it has disappeared into the ether. Just in case you get similar notes from other readers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, hell, I’ll go through the spam folder and see if I can’t find your comment there. It’s been eating quite a few comments lately.

      The whole testing thing is a real conundrum–fortunately not one that I have to figure out a solution to. I’m sure someone can figure out a better system, and I’m sure it’s not me. I’m better at spotting problems.


    • I haven’t followed what’s happening in Wales, Northern Ireland, or Scotland, but I don’t think the British (or since we’re talking about education, do we say English??) government’s thinking ten minutes ahead. My prediction? Schools will open–without regular testing. Clusters of infection will pop up and individual schools will close. Then reopen. Other schools will close. Local lockdowns will happen. Mass testing of asymptomatic people will not happen.

      That sound you don’t hear? That’s me, screaming silently.


  10. The university my son attends is opening it’s dorms this week. They were supposed to test everyone moving in for the virus. So far, they have tested 2,000 people. I’m guessing that at a school where the largest dorm holds 1100 students, they have a ways to go. The school President doesn’t think there’s a problem. The students just have to practice safe behavior and only interact with people in their own dorm. The school is doing a hybrid of online and in-person classes. My son commutes from our house, and his classes are all online. Thank goodness.

    Liked by 1 person

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