Thursday, December 30, 2010

British Universities staging admissions tests to identify the brightest students

Dumbed down school exams not much use. So we have a backdoor revival of IQ testing

Students are facing a battery of admissions tests to get into university next year amid record demand for degree courses. The Daily Telegraph has learnt that as many as one-in-five universities and higher education colleges are staging their own entrance exams to pick out the best candidates. In many cases, students are being asked to sit aptitude tests to get into the most sought-after institutions.

The disclosure will fuel fears that universities are struggling to identify the most able applicants from a huge rise in school-leavers with straight As at A-level. But other institutions are also staging more basic literacy and numeracy exams just to make sure teenagers have a decent grasp of the three-Rs before starting a degree.

It comes as record numbers of students chase higher education places next year. According to the latest figures, an unprecedented 181,814 candidates completed applications by the end of November – a rise of almost 12 per cent compared with the same point last year. If the trend continues into 2011, almost 240,000 applicants could be left without places. The scramble comes as students attempt to get into university before a sharp rise in tuition fees in 2012.

Prof Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, said growing numbers of admissions tutors no longer trusted A-level results. “It’s a great pity that universities are having to introduce their own entrance exams,” he said. “On the one hand it is comment on the ability of A-levels to distinguish between students at the top end. “On the other, it shows that universities don’t believe that students are literate or numerate enough to take some courses, even if they’ve passed their GCSEs and A-levels.”

In a report, researchers surveyed some 306 universities and higher education colleges. The study, by the organisation Supporting Professionalism in Admissions (SPA), which advises universities on admissions policies, found that 21 per cent used tests to dictate entry to some subjects. It was up on around 16 per cent two years ago and the same as the number in 2009/10.

Researchers insisted it still only accounted for a small proportion - around one per cent - of the 43,360 courses on offer next year. But the disclosure will add to growing concerns that GCSE or A-level results alone are not enough to gauge a candidate’s suitability for courses.

Students taking medicine and law are normally required to sit entrance exams to get into the most selective universities. The National Admissions Test for Law must be passed to study the subject at Birmingham, Bristol, Durham, Glasgow, Kings College London, Nottingham, Oxford and University College London. Other universities, including Oxford, Cambridge, UCL, set their own exams for some courses.

Cambridge’s thinking skills assessment – a 90 minute multiple choice aptitude test – is needed to study computer science, economics, engineering, land economy, natural sciences and politics, psychology and sociology (PPS). Students need to sit an admissions test or submit written work to get on to 29 courses at Oxford, the SPA survey said.

But candidates also have to pass entrance tests to get into less selective universities. According to the SPA, students attempting to take undergraduate teacher training degrees at Gloucestershire need to sit English and maths tests and some courses at Bournemouth University require a “maths and logic” exam.

Students must take a written English test to study journalism at Kent and those attempting to study occupational therapy at London South Bank have to complete a writing, grammar and problem-solving assessment.

Kingston University requires students applying to aircraft engineering to take a one-hour maths and physics paper, while those attempting to read social work must sit a literacy and “case study comprehension” test.

The rise of university entry tests coincides with an increase in A-level results. According to figures, a record 27 per cent of exams were awarded an A grade this year. Some one-in-12 papers scored an elite A* grade introduced for the first time this year to pick out the brightest candidates.

On its website, SPA said: “Some higher education institutions use admissions tests to aid differentiation between the most able applicants. “A test score in this context has become more significant because of concerns about the high numbers of candidates who achieve high grades in qualifications, eg. the increasing number of A grades at A level. “Tests may also focus upon skills and aptitudes that are not assessed through academic attainment.”


Sanity coming to the British university admissions system?

A dramatic shake-up of university admissions could see students waiting for their A-level results before applying for degrees. Teenagers currently apply for courses on the basis of the grades their teachers predict they will achieve – even though up to half of estimated grades turn out to be wrong. The new plan would mean prospective students could apply only after they have been awarded the marks necessary to secure a place at their university of choice.

The reform would require an overhaul of the current system, with speedier marking and A-level exams taken earlier in the academic year. It is designed to help state pupils who are often predicted lower grades than they go on to achieve.

It is one of a number of proposed changes – for inclusion in next spring’s education white paper – aimed at minimising the damage that the hike in tuition fees could have on social mobility. Universities minister David Willetts has given his provisional backing to the plan.

The changes have been prompted by Oxford University research commissioned by Mr Willetts’ department which shows that the most able candidates from comprehensive schools are disadvantaged by the current system. This is because their teachers underestimate the grades they go on to receive – often because they have less experience than those in independent and grammar schools of dealing with such high achievers.

As a result, many highly capable candidates do not apply for the country’s top universities.

Mary Curnock Cook, of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, the most senior figure in the admissions system, has strongly backed the plans and believes they could be implemented within five years. She believes the chief hurdle is the time taken by exam boards to mark students’ papers.

For the reform to work, A-level results would need to be available by early summer to allow time for students to apply for courses starting in late September or early October. At present students receive their results in August, nine months after receiving their predicted grades.

Mrs Curnock Cook said: ‘I have come to the conclusion that probably the biggest single reform that we can do in the qualifications arena and higher education is to move to a post-qualifications admissions system. ‘This is something that’s been put in the “too difficult to handle box” for a very long time.’

Mrs Curnock Cook said she was ‘shocked’ by the time taken by exam boards to mark papers, asking: ‘What’s happened to technology?’ She added: ‘I cannot believe that in the next five years we cannot speed up the marking of exams.’

The proposal will be studied by exam watchdog Ofqual. Its chief executive, Isabel Nisbet, said: ‘We will actively consider the proposals with Ucas and with the awarding organisation we regulate.’

Mr Willetts stressed the need for the reform. He said: ‘The big argument in favour is that in terms of social mobility, there is some underestimation in the forecast of A-level grades of teenagers at mainstream, non-academic schools.

‘There are some people from tough backgrounds who do better at their A-level grades than predicted and might have got to a more competitive university if it had been possible to judge them on their actual performance, not their predicted performance.’

However, Simon Lebus, of exam board Cambridge Assessment, questioned the feasibility of the proposals. ‘If you wanted to have results at a certain time, I am sure awarding bodies could bring it forward a week or two weeks,’ he said. ‘The issue is about schools having the ability to receive the results earlier in the summer holidays and how set-up the universities would be to handle many thousands of applications over a shorter period.’


Australia: Federal government plan to liberate schools

Any decentralization of power should be good. A bit surprising from a Leftist government, though

SCHOOLS will become self-governing under a Labor plan that hands responsibility for budgets and hiring teachers to principals and school councils. The plan would also hold them accountable for student performance.

In a move that would comprehensively reshape the nation's education system, the federal government is proposing a model of school governance based on the way independent schools operate, turning government and Catholic schools into "autonomous" institutions.

In a briefing paper submitted to a meeting of state education ministers at the beginning of the month, the federal government outlined a plan for autonomous schools to become the standard by 2018 in the government and non-government sectors. "The aim of the initiative is to facilitate systemic national reform to establish autonomous school operation as the norm across all Australian education sectors, with schools predominantly being self-governing," it says.

The paper says increasing school autonomy will "improve student performance by providing principals, parents and school communities a greater input into the management of their local school".

The plan goes further than the model outlined by Julia Gillard in the election campaign that proposed "empowering local schools" by giving principals and parents a greater say over selecting and employing teachers, and identifying funding priorities.

The idea of self-governing schools resembles the charter school movement in the US of publicly funded, but privately run, schools open to all students.

The plan is yet to be considered by education ministers. A spokeswoman for School Education Minister Peter Garrett, who is on leave, said the briefing paper was noted at the ministerial council meeting and a working group would be established in the new year, with members from states and territories, which would consult widely. "The government remains committed to delivering greater autonomy to school communities and won't pre-empt the work to be completed by the working party," she said.

But the Australian Education Union, representing public schools, yesterday accused the government of privatising the public education system.

AEU federal president Angelo Gavrielatos said school autonomy was just a slogan and there was no evidence that increasing the control of principals and school boards improved student achievement. "Why is the government hell bent on taking the word public out of education?" he said.

"Make no mistake, this is a privatisation agenda. "When I hear the words 'local autonomy' uttered by governments, I can't help but think that what they are granting principals and teachers is nothing more than the freedom to obey. "They want to give us the autonomy to do the plumbing and fix faulty powerpoints while dictating that when reporting on student achievement, we can only use five letters of the alphabet, A to E."

The brief provided to the ministers outlines a two-phase implementation process, with 1000 schools to participate in an initial rollout in 2012 and 2013, with the selected schools to come from every state and territory and a third from regional areas.

In the second phase of the proposal, the rest of the nation's schools will be "offered the opportunity to increase their level of local independence" as part of a national rollout by 2018.

The proposal envisages a nationally agreed statement of criteria defining the "essential elements of autonomous school operation" and an assessment process by which schools are selected to participate.

A similar approach has been adopted by the West Australian government, which introduced independent public schools, with 34 starting this year and a further 64 to start next year. Boards are established to govern the schools, with principals having control over the hiring of staff and a one-line budget, allowing them to decide how to spend their money. The ACT is moving to a similar system and Victoria has operated a system of self-managed schools since the late 1990s.

Victoria's reforms, introduced by the Kennett Liberal government, were intended to go further and allow self-governing schools, which would have made them the employer - not just the selector - of teachers and responsible for industrial negotiations. But only 50 of about 1600 schools agreed to the proposal and it was dropped by the Bracks Labor government. Former premier Jeff Kennett said yesterday "the unions got to Bracks" and stopped the rollout of his original scheme.

Mr Kennett said he still believed it was the best way to run schools in the public system, by giving principals and school councils full control.


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