Nationally administered standardised tests for students are to be piloted in English universities.
The generic, non-subject-specific exams will be trialled by the Higher Education Funding Council for England to evaluate whether they could be used to measure undergraduates’ “learning gain” – the improvement in skills and competencies made by students during their time at university.
The results of any nationwide standardised test could also be used to compare institutional performance, and may form a key metric in the planned teaching excellence framework.
The pilot, which was announced on 21 September, will take place alongside a multi-institutional trial of a learning gain assessment programme, which is already running overseas. Times Higher Education understands that this is likely to be the Wabash National Study, which uses a mix of grades, surveys and standardised tests, and was developed at Wabash College in Indiana.
Hefce has also announced £4 million of funding for 12 projects to test measures of learning gain at more than 70 universities and colleges.
Some of these will focus on comparing course grades or survey data but seven will include standardised testing. The universities of Warwick, East Anglia and Manchester are among the institutions leading these projects.
Jo Johnson, the universities minister, said that the results of the pilots “will help assess teaching quality and excellence and ultimately provide better value for all students”.
Madeleine Atkins, Hefce’s chief executive, said the projects “have the potential to support measurement and indicators at institutional and even national level, but also crucially to improve learning and teaching practice in universities and colleges”.
Interest in learning gain has been sparked by concerns that the degree classification system is not a sufficient indicator of students’ progress, especially when considered alongside A-level scores.
The Hefce pilot will consider whether standardised testing, which has been pioneered in the US, could be translated to a UK context. The funding council is expected to invite tenders for the development of the exams, which would then be evaluated in two trials involving up to 50,000 students.
The preferred approach is thought to be for a test that could be delivered electronically at two points during a students’ time at university, and would be separate from degree-related assessment, but the exact competencies to be measured would be determined during the tendering process.
Baroness Wolf of Dulwich, Sir Roy Griffiths professor of public sector management at King’s College London, said that standardised tests “might be very helpful to individuals as a way of demonstrating their achievement”, although she expressed a preference for subject-specific exams.
However, she warned that standardised testing was “completely unable” to measure university performance “in any reliable or valid sort of way” owing to the differences between institutions and syllabi.