Test benefits

August 13, 2004

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

"We are reaching crisis point," said Tim Kaye, head of undergraduate admissions at Birmingham University's Law School, summing up the sentiments of many of those who oversee student admissions.

Birmingham attracts 2,500 applicants, mostly people with good A-level results, for the 240 places on its law course - and application numbers, as well as exam grades, are rising every year.

This is the reality facing universities up and down the country. Last year, the A-level pass rate topped 95 per cent. More than a fifth of pupils secured at least one A grade compared with fewer than one in ten in 1970.

Admissions tests - which ostensibly gauge an applicant's aptitude not past achievement - offer universities a way of differentiating between the abilities of an increasing number of A-grade students, particularly in high-demand subjects such as law and medicine.

Two tests - the National Admissions Test for Law (Lnat) and the Biomedical Admissions Test (Bmat) - have been devised to select applicants most likely to do well on law, medical and veterinary degree courses.

Bespoke tests for candidates wishing to study history and English at Oxford University are on their way.

If the tests live up to their claims to be better predictors of academic talent than A-levels, the proportion of students gaining top-degree classifications should increase, which will be good for both students and the academic reputations of the institutions that teach them.

Another benefit of tests, according to proponents such as Dr Kaye, is that tests such as the Lnat could help widen participation, since many young people from disadvantaged backgrounds do not do as well as they might at school.

He said: "I think there are people who may not be getting top A levels but who would make great law students."

Ron McLone, director-general of assessment at the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate, said: "We consider that thinking skills tests, such as those that are part of Bmat, can provide useful additional information to help make fairer admissions decisions."

It is the potential of the tests to improve the chances of students from poor backgrounds that has drawn powerful support from Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the education charity, The Sutton Trust.

A pilot study on the generic scholastic aptitude test (SAT), commissioned by the trust in 2001, showed that pupils from below-average-performing secondary schools were far more likely to get top marks in their SATs than they were to get three A grades at A level.

A more substantial study involving some 50,000 pupils is planned, but it will go ahead only if the Government provides financial support.

Mr Lampl and other supporters of such tests dismiss claims that coaching and preparation will give better-informed and wealthier applicants an advantage.

Geoff Parks, director of admissions for the Cambridge colleges, said: "We don't think it's possible to cram - in the sense that you turn somebody who would otherwise do badly into someone who does well just by throwing money at the problem.

"The skills being tested are fundamentally thinking skills," he explained, adding that the test does not focus on getting students to regurgitate knowledge.

alan.thomson@thes.co.uk

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