Alison Wolf

October 22, 2004

The country needs a SAT-type test to clear the poisonous politicised air that is swirling around university entry.

Once upon a time, an alarmingly long time ago, my sixth-form class was mustered to take a test as part of a national government study. This is so far back in time that our headmistress got quite excited instead of aiming the invitation to participate at the nearest wastepaper bin. I do not remember much about the test itself, but it was a sort of grown-up 11-plus, and therefore pretty familiar territory.

It being a government study, I then forgot about it. But years later, by pure chance, I discovered what it was, and that it had an outcome. At the time of the Robbins expansion, there was considerable interest in a US-style university entrance test for Britain: exactly the SAT-type test that the recent Schwartz report on admissions would like to see piloted here. And an earlier pilot is exactly what we were involved in that day.

This study found that scores on SAT-type tests did not add anything to A and O levels as predictors of university performance. The idea was therefore shelved in what may have been genuine evidence-based policy-making. I thought the findings really pleasing because at the time I disliked SATs intensely. Their multiple-choice format, and use of large numbers of very quickly answered problems seemed a poor way of testing the qualities valued by higher education. And since tests are what students work towards, their wash-back effect on the curriculum can be serious.

However, times change (as, indeed, have the SATs). I now think we need a British version badly - the sooner the better. And, while we are about it, can we have some graduate admissions exams too, please?

What has changed most is the politicisation of university entrance by populist politicians, compounded by the peculiar nature of our sixth-form curriculum. Introducing more A-level grades, and releasing unit marks, may help admissions officers, especially in cases where the A level and degree subject are the same. But it will not get round the fundamental problem of comparing apples and oranges in the form not just of different A levels, but also different "level 3 awards".J Assessment experts will tell you, correctly, that it is impossible to say exactly how much more difficult, or easier, one A level is than another, let alone how much easier or harder a Btec diploma is than two A levels (subject unspecified). At the same time, everyone knows - also correctly - that all A levels and all level 3 awards are not equally hard, let alone equally relevant to each and every degree. They are, however, classified that way by government statisticians, notably when drawing up benchmarks for university admissions of 18-year-olds from maintained and independent schools.

If you want to rank people precisely by their test scores, then they have to take the same test. Many European countries can come closer to this than we can because their upper-secondary programmes offer a very limited number of set subject combinations. That is clearly not what the Tomlinson report envisages; instead it seems likely to increase the number and diversity of things that "count". Anyone who thinks that, at the same time, it has discovered how to equate subjects, adjust for relative difficulty and come up with a precise and uncontroversial numerical ranking for the whole age group really ought to see a doctor.

Sweden, with impeccably egalitarian credentials and a great deal of teacher assessment, has had a Swedish SAT for years. The Swedes do not see it as some magical way of tapping underlying potential but they do argue that what it tests is relatively accessible to all students. Anyone can study and learn for it whether or not they have access to specialist teachers of high quality, and it sits alongside, rather than replaces, school grades and degree prerequisites.

Communist countries, in their early post-revolution years, commonly tied university admissions to class origins. Today, Britain enjoys the dubious distinction of being the only major country where it is government policy to make class (or some rough school/ postcode correlate of class) a formal criterion for admissions. In the poisonous atmosphere this has created, we need a clear change to admissions practice to reverse the growing politicisation and paranoia. With few options on offer, a SAT seems the likeliest bet.

There is, however, one new problem that the last UK pilot did not face: how to judge the test's effectiveness. Back then, it was generally agreed that degree standards in the small university sector were indeed equivalent: a first was a first was a first, across subjects and institutions. No one believes that now, let alone knows how to rank results from the whole world's universities.J With graduate degrees the new growth area, is it time for UK graduate admissions exams?

Alison Wolf is professor of management at King's College London.

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