Standard measures

November 20, 2014

A revealing approach to tackling the challenge of the relative standard of degrees (“Unknown qualities”, Features, 13 November) might be to require universities to publish not just syllabuses but also examples of past exam papers.

Brian Tanner
Professor of physics, Durham University


Chris Rust asks if degree standards are comparable. The importance of comparability is particularly acute for subjects such as medicine. First, it is essential that the passing standard at all medical schools reflect the minimum level of competence required of junior doctors. However, given the investments made by students to obtain a medical degree, it is also important that there are no “false negatives”: students who fail to graduate from their chosen medical school but who would have passed elsewhere.

To this end, the Medical Schools Council Assessment Alliance is coordinating a national project that aims to evaluate the comparability of passing standards for written finals exams across UK medical schools. Participating schools are given a set of “common content” single best answer questions to include in their graduation-level exams. Each school uses its own method of setting the passing standard for these questions and returns data on the standard set for each question used. In 2013-14, 22 of the 31 UK medical schools with graduation-level exams participated in the project, with 19 providing sufficient data for the statistical analysis of passing standards, which is under way. All 31 schools have expressed a desire to participate in 2014-15. The project demonstrates how institutions can collaborate successfully to provide the evidence of comparability of passing standards that Rust believes to be lacking.

Despite the value of such work, it is also important to highlight that the proportion of UK medical school graduates who do not pass their annual review at the end of their first year of clinical practice in the NHS is very small, implying that schools do not appear to be setting their passing standards too low.

Celia Taylor
University of Birmingham

Katie Petty-Saphon
Chief executive, Medical Schools Council

Val Wass
Chair, Medical Schools Council Assessment Alliance

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