Entry test tackles class bias

August 13, 2004

Evidence that university admissions tests can help talent-spot sixth-formers across social classes is expected to emerge from a UK exam group, The Times Higher has learnt.

Figures due to be published in autumn will add weight to the final recommendations of the Schwartz review of admissions, which will endorse the idea of universities using a common test of potential. But the report warns against institutions creating their own entry exams.

The final Schwartz report is expected to say that a single admissions test could help widen access to higher education and could prove useful in spotting candidates whose ability is not reflected in their school results.

The new statistics will be published by the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate and will show a link between the performance of Cambridge applicants in a multiple-choice thinking skills test, first set in 2001, and students' performance in first-year exams.

UCLES said that admissions tutors were finding the tests "useful" although they fell short of being a "sure-fire predictor" of an applicant's final degree result.

The syndicate added that there was an "an increasing level of interest" in the Thinking Skills Assessment and hinted that admissions testing may spread from medical sciences and law to the arts.

But it remains to be seen how the final Schwartz recommendations on admissions tests will relate to findings of the separate Tomlinson inquiry into reform of the 14-to-19 exams system, which is also due to present its final report to ministers in autumn.

It is understood that the Tomlinson group - which has proposed absorbing A levels and GCSEs into a new diploma - is concerned that the credibility of its new exam system could be undermined if universities turn towards wider use of admissions tests.

The Tomlinson proposals include a fine-grained grading system for the new diploma to help universities distinguish between candidates.

Tessa Stone, director of the educational charity, the Sutton Trust, urged the Government to conduct a "large-scale research trial" of admissions tests to gauge the role they might play in widening access to higher education.

Dr Stone pointed out that the worth of the tests being tried at Cambridge - which have also been adopted for medical students applying to Oxford University and University College London - had not as yet been proven.

Dr Stone said: "Our concern is that there is a very strong risk that testing will work against widening participation if we are not careful, and that the proliferation of testing will be a barrier rather than help non-traditional students whose A-level grades may not reflect their ability.

"The thinking skills test has been developed for Cambridge entrants. The question is: can it be scaled across the ability cohort?

"If it can't, it will certainly help the selective and high-flying universities, but it won't do anything for the middle-ranking universities, which may want to take a punt on someone who has Ds at A level but needs help to identify their potential."

But Robert Harding of UCLES said: "We can certainly say that the tests are of use, and we have enough data to say that the results do add to our ability to select candidates who are likely to do well."

He added: "We now have evidence that it will improve your ability to choose candidates who can successfully complete the first year of a university course."

He predicted that interest in the test would grow, particularly from institutions and faculties that were "heavily oversubscribed by extremely capable candidates".

Dr Harding added: "We have left the thinking skills test to be used by Cambridge colleges as they will, but there is an increasing level of interest in it.

"We have had inquiries from arts admissions people, but it falls short of a statement of intent. We have to wait and see - they will probably declare their hand in September."



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