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Meet the Secret Algorithm That's Keeping Students Out of College

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A test form.

The International Baccalaureate program used a formula including a students assignment scores, predicted grades, and historical IB results from their school in place of its year-end exam.

Credit: Douglas Sacha/Getty Images

Eighteen-year-old Anahita Nagpal's plans to start training this fall to be a doctor are in ruins. She blames a statistical model.

Nagpal, who lives in Göttingen, Germany, had been offered a premed place and scholarship at NYU. Both were withdrawn this week, she says, after she scored more poorly than expected on her International Baccalaureate diploma, a two-year high school program recognized by colleges and taken by more than 170,000 students this year, most in the US.

Teen regrets about grades aren't unusual, but the way the foundation behind the IB Diploma Programme calculated this year's grades was. The results, released Monday, were determined by a formula that IB, the foundation behind the program, hastily deployed after canceling its usual springtime exams due to Covid-19. The system used signals including a student's grades on assignments and grades from past grads at their school to predict what they would have scored had the pandemic not prevented in-person tests.

Nagpal and many other students, parents, and teachers say those predictions misfired. Many students received suspiciously low scores, they say, shattering their plans for the fall and beyond. Nagpal's backup plan if she missed out on NYU was to study medicine in Germany, but her lower-than-expected grades don't allow that either. "Like so many, I was extremely shocked," she says. "I basically cannot study what I want to anywhere anymore."

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


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