Holistic cure in these testing times

April 9, 2004

Aptitude tests may help UK universities spot bright applicants but they can never be the only yardstick by which candidates are measured, argues Steven Schwartz

Sixty years ago, Harvard University was the preserve of wealthy students whose families could afford to send them to the best preparatory schools. James Conant, the president of Harvard at the time, believed that talented students were missing out because their poor schooling did not prepare them for the curriculum-based achievement tests that Harvard used to select students.

Conant wanted selection to be based, in part, on a general aptitude test that was not linked to any particular school experience. In Conant's view, such a test would produce a level playing field on which working-class and middle-class students could compete in a contest of brains rather than bank accounts. The test he chose was the SAT. First administered in 1926, the scholastic aptitude test, as it was known, was thought to be a test of innate ability and largely immune to the effects of schooling. Over the ensuing years, egalitarian educators embraced the SAT as a way of what we now call "widening access".

Fast forward to the 1990s. The SAT was producing revenues of about $200 million (£108 million) a year, but some critics questioned its status as a test of innate ability. Studies found that coaching did improve performance, although how much was debatable, and certainly good schooling helped students achieve higher scores. Recognising this, the College Board, which owns the SAT, and the Educational Testing Service, which produces it, changed their views. The SAT was not an aptitude test after all, it was a test of teachable reasoning skills: to underline this, they renamed it the scholastic assessment test. Eventually they changed the name to just plain SAT. This doesn't mean the test is not useful - it does predict first-year university performance, which is why it is still widely used.

Given the early adoption of the SAT by the University of California, it is ironic that a former president of the University of California system, Richard Atkinson, now thinks the SAT should be replaced by curriculum-based achievement tests (similar to English A levels). Coming full circle, Atkinson not only believes that the SAT discriminates against some groups (family income is correlated with SAT scores), but that it perverts the educational system. He reached this view after watching children practising verbal analogies. In Atkinson's view, teaching time that could have been devoted to reading or writing was being spent preparing for a test. The new version of the SAT will no longer contain analogies, but the point is still valid. If tests are used to select students, schools will try to maximise test scores by teaching to the test.

In practice, test scores alone will not get a student onto a competitive course. Most institutions that use the SAT treat it as only one piece of information in a holistic assessment that also considers school marks, recommendations, personal statements and so on. In most cases, performance in the examination correlates with other indicators of academic success, such as A-level examination marks. But, in a British study conducted on behalf of the Sutton Trust, about 5 per cent of students showed a disjunction in their performance. That is, they did well on the SAT but scored modestly in their A levels. If the only information available to admissions tutors were A-level scores, these students would not be considered. But with the extra information provided by the examination, admission tutors might take a closer look. They may find that these students don't apply themselves at school. On the other hand, admissions tutors may find that these are students who read widely on their own but have not been prepared properly for A levels. These students may do well in higher education. In such cases, having an admissions test would add extra and important information.

Of course, if an admissions test is deemed necessary, it need not be the SAT. Although it is widely used, the SAT is not the only university entrance examination, not even in the US. Some institutions use the American College Testing assessment (ACT), which measures English, mathematics, reading and science reasoning. US universities also have special examinations for entry to medical schools, law schools, business schools and graduate research courses.

In Britain, we are developing and, in some cases, using several different tests. For example, five universities are using the biomedical admissions test for admission to medical and veterinary courses. Examinations for law, business and other specialised courses are also appearing. The University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate has developed the thinking-skills assessment, a modern attempt to produce a curriculum-free test (but without claiming that thinking skills are innate). Of course, universities may not need to use any examination at all. Most Canadian and Australian universities seem to survive without them.

While a multitude of different tests will allow a healthy competition from which good practice will evolve, a problem with any admissions test is that it imposes costs. Students have to pay to travel to a testing site, and for the exam itself. The new SAT will cost students $38, or about £20.

The financial burden will increase further if students are required to take different examinations in different places for different courses. Some students may decide not to apply just to avoid incurring these costs.

If higher education institutions are going to use examinations, it would be easier and cheaper for everyone if they agreed on just one. Whichever test a university uses, we should not make the historical mistake of thinking that it will be entirely fair to all groups. There is no perfectly objective selection device, and there never will be. All examinations are influenced by social and economic factors and by life experience. The best we can hope for is that admission tutors will use test results as part of a holistic assessment. University admissions will always be more of an art than a science.

Steven Schwartz is vice-chancellor of Brunel University and leader of the Admissions to Higher Education Review. The opinions expressed here are the author's alone.

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