A fresher’s view of university admissions testing

Posted by Steve Lay

As someone who lives in a university town, I’m very aware that the beginning of October is the start of the academic year. The impact of 12,000+ students descending on a small English market town over the course of one weekend is total gridlock! Fortunately, first year undergraduates, or freshers as they are known, are given a bit of a head start which helps them find their way before the deluge. The whole process has an added poignancy for me this year as my son starts his college course this week.

A lot has changed since I started my degree, but I’m sure freshers still compare A-level results as one of their first topics of conversation. A-level examinations were originally designed as qualifications in themselves. For example, a person with a French language A-level can be expected to demonstrate a certain level of competence when speaking and writing in French. This contrasts with aptitude tests where a person demonstrates their potential rather than a specific competency.

These days, an increase in the number of students going on to higher education in the UK has shifted the main emphasis towards the use of A-levels as a tool for university admissions. As a result, different providers are now required to publish a unified mark scale (UMS). The UMS is an ambitious concept: not only does it attempt to standardise marks amongst the different providers but it also attempts to tackle year-on-year comparability. As governments look for year-on-year improvements there is a serious danger of circularity in the standard-setting process. We even have a phrase to describe the end result: grade inflation. The whole system has become a political football.

With so much invested (by teachers and students) in one system of assessment, it is not surprising that the subject comes up in freshers week, but it won’t take long before talk of A-level results will be replaced by more pertinent measures. Universities have embraced assessment technologies, making it easier to provide students with frequent progress checks and tailored feedback. Students are no longer passive recipients either: they are demanding improvements in the assessment processes! This has even been the subject of a recent student union campaign.

It is worth remembering that all assessments have a shelf-life. The value of an A-level taken 25 years ago is considerably less than one taken this year — and that’s not a statement about year-on-year comparability!

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