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.
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.