Saturday, August 22, 2020

Stranger than fiction

Talk about life imitating art, and not in a good way: In 2019, British student Jessica Johnson wrote a short story that earned her an Orwell Youth Prize...only to have her dystopian tale come to life, and at her own expense no less. It's pretty crazy.

I don't know much about the British education system, so I'm not exactly sure what is meant by certain terms like A-level and Sixth Form, but here is the gist of the situation:

  • In 2019, Jessica won an Orwell Youth Prize for her story "A Band Apart". Set in 2029, it envisions a future in which merit and grades are only a part of student performance assessment - another factor is an algorithm that rewards or penalizes each student depending on their background. This combination results in them being assigned to one of three "bands". Band 1 is the most advantageous because it affords these students better education and more prestigious, lucrative careers like doctor or lawyer. Band 2 provides decent jobs like teacher or administration, while Band 3 dooms those students to menial, low-paying jobs. The result is a caste system that makes it difficult for lower-class individuals to rise above their current station in life, and often penalizes smart, hard-working students.
  • Jessica needed an A in her English Literature class to qualify for a scholarship and retain her university admission. She was on her way to doing just that when classes were shut down earlier this year due to COVID-19 and final exams were canceled. For some reason, the decision was made to to add a "formula" to grades given by teachers based on work up to the point of the shutdown.
  • According to this article (bold mine), "About 40% of A-level results - published on Thursday - were downgraded from teachers' assessments by exams regulator Ofqual, which used a formula based on schools' prior grades." Johnson was one of those affected - the "formula" dropped her grade from an A to a B, which would have cost her both the scholarship and her university admission. This is exactly what happened in "A Band Apart" - despite hard work, some students were hobbled by unrelated factors out of their control.

Luckily, according to this article, her A grade has been restored. Jessica reflected on the irony of her experience:

"I've fallen into my story. It's crazy," said Jessica Johnson, a student at Ashton Sixth Form College in Greater Manchester. "I based it on the educational inequality I already saw. I just exaggerated that inequality and added the algorithm. But I really didn't think it would come true as quick as it did!"

This whole story reminded me of a quote regarding George Orwell's novel 1984. I don't remember where I saw it and I couldn't discover who originally made the statement, but it really resonates: "1984 was supposed to be a warning, not an instruction manual." There's a great piece about the quote here.

You can read "A Band Apart" here. Gotta admit, I'm impressed with her as a writer. I hope she goes far.

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