A testing time for university admissions

In higher education there are few things as difficult, as potentially controversial and (as some might argue) as habitually misleading as the examinations that secure access to university courses. In the not-too-distant past many universities that considered themselves to be part of an elite conducted their own tests as a basis for admission decisions. But over time these examinations disappeared, particularly as in several countries standardised admissions procedures were developed across the whole university sector. So for example the University of Cambridge discontinued its own entrance exam in 1986.

This produced a situation in which the final school examinations, typically run by the state, determined university admissions. In the United States of America the equivalent standardised test – the SAT (originally the ‘Scholastic Aptitude Test’, now just SAT) – is run by a private non-profit organisation, but is accepted by the entire higher education system.

The advantage of a nation-wide standard test is that it provides an apparently objective and comparable basis for university admissions decisions; everyone applying has done the same test and has been graded according to the same guidelines and standards, across the whole country and in applications to all institutions.

Of course that only works if the credentials of the examination and the usefulness of the results it produces are widely accepted. A problem that has emerged in a number of countries is the suspicion that results have suffered from grade inflation – i.e. the belief that improved scores are less due to better performance and more due to a tendency to increase the average marks over time. So if results are in large numbers converging on the same high point in the scale it becomes more difficult, it is argued, for universities to determine which student applicants have demonstrated the better aptitude for their chosen course.

Now the University of Cambridge has responded to this apparent phenomenon by talking about reintroducing its entrance exam. Whether this is a good solution to the perceived problem is another matter, not least because the entrance exam is seen by many as favouring students from private schools, who will have the staff and resources to prepare applicants for this exercise.

There is a very good case for re-examining final school examinations in a number of countries, and also for looking again at how the results are used in the university sector to take admissions decisions. Where they are used to determine entry standards they should work reasonably well; where they are used to make individual selections (i.e. to select one student over another) they may often be less useful. But the answer to the problem almost certainly is not for individual universities to introduce entrance examinations.

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11 Comments on “A testing time for university admissions”

  1. Greg Foley Says:

    Re grade inflation: In 2008 just under 30% of Irish Students scored 400+ CAO points. In 2015 the number was just under 36%., amounting to an extra 5000 students jostling for places in the university system (but not the IoT system). This is a key driver of ‘heat’ in the points system and no one seems to want to talk about it.


  2. Another problem is the prioritisation of “fairness” over “learning”. We could design better second level educational systems but it would be based on assessment that would be less reliable and be perceived as being less fair.

  3. anna notaro Says:

    Another option would be “to simply abolish university assessment and entry requirements”, as historian Selina Todd writing in today’s Guardian argues:
    http://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/sep/22/oxbridge-comprehensive-university-selection-criteria?CMP=share_btn_tw
    The concept of the comprehensive university was seriously debated in the 1960s, hardly surprising it has come back at a time of acute cultural retrophilia, and yet it is hard to deny that universities are still struggling to tackle inequality in admission and assessment practices.

    • Greg Foley Says:

      The problem with that though is that there is clear evidence (in Ireland at any rate) that student progression through university is strongly correlated with ‘prior educational achievement’.

  4. Vince Says:

    We’re always wittering on about lifelong learning, but while actual real provisions to undertake that learning are put in place we’ll have this idiotic system designed for 2% of the population now dealing with 50% plus. It’s nuts that retraining in ones 30s 40s 50s… 80s has to compete with the cohort coming out of schools. And just why can’t someone train as a medical doctor without hoops being jumped through. Why can’t a nurse move seamlessly to the study of an MB.
    On the entry exam for Cambridge, why, don’t they have an interview. Let me ask this FvP. How much greater are the chances of a kid of yours, or your like getting into Cambridge, than the kid from the village near your Irish or Scottish homes. Wouldn’t you say there are other things in-play beyond the results of the school exams.

  5. Wendymr Says:

    I think there’s an argument to be made that increased numbers or % of those getting higher grades may be less ‘grade inflation’ and more a consequence of changing attitudes to education overall, and higher education in particular. Over time, we’ve seen increased participation in higher education, driven by a variety of factors:
    * funding and other changes aimed at encouraging more students from under-represented socio-economic demographics to participate in higher education
    * ‘grade inflation’ from employers: where once no qualifications would have been okay, now it’s A-levels or a degree if you want a decent job
    * the decline of traditional sectors of employment, including primary extraction, manufacturing, skilled trades – so fewer alternatives to higher education, or even just completion of secondary school, for young people

    Grades matter now in a way they didn’t in the 1960s or even the 1980s. As a result, I’d expect to see more students working harder in order to get higher marks – absent a decision to ‘grade on a curve’ and thus manipulate results.


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