Oxford University giving more time to pass computer science exams defeats the purpose of exams

UK’s Telegraph published an article with a misleading title, “Oxford University gives women more time to pass exams“, which states:

Students taking maths and computer science examinations in the summer of 2017 were given an extra 15 minutes to complete their papers, after dons ruled that “female candidates might be more likely to be adversely affected by time pressure”. There was no change to the length or difficulty of the questions.

Aside from the inherent sexism of low expectations from female candidates, Oxford seems to have forgotten what an examination was supposed to do in the first place, and that is measure competence.

As with any affirmative action practice, it is now more difficult to distinguish between a candidate deserving a certain grade because of their capability or because of systematic discrimination as a means to achieve an end.

The title of the Telegraph’s article is misleading because the extra time for the exam was granted to all students, male and female.  However, we must not forget that time constraints are a necessity in measuring competence, especially in a technical field like computer science.

The concept of infinity explains this from first principles. A common analogy says that if you give a group of monkeys enough time in a room full of typewriters, they would eventually type out the works of Shakespeare. In other words, when you elongate the amount of time to finish a task, necessarily those that are least competent (in this analogy, least capable in the English language) will eventually reach the goal.  Shakespeare reaches the goal in a much more compact time frame, but now it is indistinguishable whether Shakespeare was more competent than the monkeys because the time window used as the base for comparison is not constrained.

It is why there are chess clocks in chess tournaments and time limits in math and computer programming contests.  Technical interviews at software companies generally expect you to solve problems quickly because employers want to hire employees that know how to work efficiently and competently.  Exams should reflect this reality too.

Since speed matters in measuring competence, Oxford’s low expectations of women is transparent. They outright say that the extended time is to help females, which implies their generalization of females being less competent. It punishes both the competent men and women that excel within the shorter time by making their results more ambiguous among the less competent men and women. Those capable of finishing the exam early and not needing the extra 15 minutes are particularly affected as their results will be indistinguishable from those that required the extra 15 minutes to achieve the same results.

Perhaps a solution here would be to grant a time bonus to early finishers. But in reality, the results are all relative.  It doesn’t matter whether all students “pass” an exam; there will still be a top and bottom of a normally distributed bell curve. This makes the case for having exams nearly impossible to finish on time. If only the best students manage to just finish an exam on time, then it would likely result in a closer to optimal evaluation of the rest of the class as the time constraints will naturally adjust the grades measuring the capability of the other students.

Perhaps in more creative fields where efficiency is not valued, art or music for example, time constraints are unnecessary.  But in a field like computer science, Oxford is not doing anyone any favours downplaying the importance of time pressure. But of course we have known for quite some time now that universities are no longer in the business of doing what is fair and rational, but rather enacting policies focused on identity politics to reflect the postmodern, neo-Marxist, identitarian ideology of its administrators.

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