... and drawbacks

August 13, 2004

While some universities welcome admissions tests, others fear they will exclude students from poor backgrounds. Alan Thomson looks at the arguments

University entry tests are similar to an 11-plus exam - but for 18-year-olds - and will exclude the very people from less prosperous backgrounds they aim to benefit, opponents claim.

There is little dissension from the view that universities are increasingly hard pressed to select the best students from a growing number of highly qualified applicants. But this should not be used as an excuse to introduce another tier of testing, the critics say.

Alan Smithers, professor of education at Buckingham University and director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research, said: "In some ways, admissions tests are like an 11-plus at age 18, so presumably the reasons against selection at secondary school apply to these tests, too."

Professor Smithers believes that A levels need to be reformed to do the job that they are meant to do, which is to differentiate sufficiently between students' academic abilities.

He said: "The ability to benefit from higher education is not just having raw potential. You need to have a platform of understanding - A levels are, in principle, a test of the capacity to benefit from higher education as much as an assessment of what has been achieved already."

Jane Nelson, chairwoman of the Admissions Practitioners' Group, said many admissions tutors remained unconvinced of the worth of the new tests.

She said: "The tests are not particularly popular among practitioners. I think people are fairly sceptical and would prefer to see A levels made useable for the purpose of differentiation rather than the development of specific tests.

She added: "I think people are also concerned about whether you can coach for admissions tests."

Detractors point to evidence from across the Atlantic showing that tutoring can enhance performance in aptitude tests - and that those from wealthier backgrounds inevitably benefit from such preparation.

US studies have concluded that non-whites and low-income students do not do as well in the SAT as white middle-class students, whose parents can afford to pay for tuition.

The hugely successful test-preparation industry in the US is already established in the UK.

Cataga Ltd is a UK-based company offering tutoring services: its website states confidently that the BioMedical Admissions Test (Bmat) and the National Admission Test for Law (Lnat) will "not be impervious to preparation".

It adds: "The experience of university aptitude testing in the US provides extremely strong evidence in favour of the benefits of test preparation."

Pam Tatlow, chief executive of the Campaign for Mainstream Universities, said tests in the UK were less important for universities whose students come from less privileged backgrounds and who do not have top grades.

She said: "The idea that universities are filled with 18-year-olds with straight As is a myth.

"At the end of the day, we are saying that people should be managing the agenda of diversity and widening participation. We are not sure tests will deliver that in terms of student recruitment."

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