Exam results are misleading

March 1, 2002

Universities should consider 'societal goals' when recruiting undergraduates, argues Ken Mackinnon.

It is often assumed in discussions of widening access to higher education that "merit" and "affirmative action" are antithetical. This is not necessarily so.

Generally, we use "merit" in two senses: one is based on what people have already achieved using the appropriate skills; the other relates to their potential. Allocating places in undergraduate degree programmes falls into the latter category.

But the traditional approach to judging potential - relying on past exam results - is problematic. Exam results can reflect inappropriate skills, such as rote learning that is quickly forgotten, or the acquisition of exam technique. They cannot take into account variations in the availability of school resources.

Moreover, even genuine ability at school is not a dependable indicator of university performance. In particular, past results under-predict the achievements of minorities and of mature students.

While the use of past grades is a convenient way to select students, it may exclude potentially strong ("meritorious") performers as well as include some students with limited potential.

Universities should therefore review and widen their definition of merit. Choosing fairly, on merit, means selecting applicants by criteria that are appropriate to the purposes of the university. It is tempting to assume that educational goals are maximised in a class of students who are all high academic achievers, but studies have shown the value of diversity.

Students supplement formal teaching through observing and listening to both their brighter and weaker fellow students, and from the different perspectives and experiences of others. They acquire new information and re-evaluate their assumptions.

If the purpose of education were merely to transmit received doctrine, classroom diversity might not be important. But tertiary students are expected to acquire more than settled wisdom: they develop skills, both intellectual and practical, they learn to evaluate knowledge claims, to reinterpret, to apply knowledge to new situations. These processes are assisted by awareness of different perspectives and experiences.

Diversity should not be pursued for its own sake, nor in a tokenistic way. This stereotypes and fails to recognise heterogeneity within groups and similarities between members of different groups. Rather than establishing a quota system to provide educational diversity, admissions committees should look for any traits in applicants that are relevant to educational processes.

Neither merit nor diversity as criteria for distributing tertiary places can be understood without reference to wider "societal goals", both of education generally and of each particular institution. These goals and missions are not arbitrary. They are in large part a response to the various stakeholder groups that have an interest in higher education, including government, particular communities, students and their prospective employers. It is unlikely that these view education as being only about excelling in exams.

The attributes they seek from graduates will affect what the institution is trying to achieve in its degree programme, the way students are taught and assessed, and in turn the admissions criteria. For example, in Australasian medical school admissions, there is a move away from exclusive use of past grades to the inclusion of such factors as applicants' ability to communicate with patients, families from diverse cultures and other professionals. A strong academic record is no longer enough.

To meet these demands, universities should adopt explicit goal-oriented and diverse admissions policies and broaden their view of merit. Traditional academic measures are too narrow.

Ken Mackinnon is associate professor at the School of Law, University of Waikato, New Zealand.

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