Biddy Passmore reports
In 2006, many applicants to university could face not just the delights of higher tuition fees but also the challenge of a US-style aptitude test on top of A-levels. Earlier this month, a government-backed inquiry threw its weight behind an "operational pilot" of the American SAT (scholastic assessment test) as a potential common test for entry to higher education in the UK.
Why yet another test for a generation of schoolchildren widely agreed to be the most tested ever?
The answer lies in the attempt to be fair to applicants from all backgrounds and types of school. Supporters of the American SAT say its tests of verbal and mathematical reasoning are a better indicator of innate ability than A-levels, which reflect the quality of teaching.
The draft report from the Higher Education Steering Group, chaired by Brunel vice-chancellor Steven Schwartz, says the introduction of a common aptitude test could also stem the current proliferation of special tests being used by top universities to discriminate between a host of straight-A applicants.
This could help heavily oversubscribed universities like Bristol, recently at the centre of a row over alleged discrimination against independent-school pupils. The university receives nearly 40,000 applications for 3,000 places. With far too many applicants to interview, it relies heavily on A-level grade predictions.
Sir Peter Lampl, the millionaire philanthropist, is a key member of the Schwartz steering group and perhaps this country's most tireless advocate for the American admissions system. He is convinced that the tests would help universities spot potential, especially among bright children from poor areas.
"At present, if you are a child from a below-average performing school, you have virtually no chance of getting to a top university," he says.
And he wants the test to be used for all university applicants, with all receiving a standard 10 hours of "familiarisation" (coaching). If the test were optional, it would just become "a middle-class game", he adds.
Sir Peter is hoping to persuade the government to support the Schwarz proposal and fund a pound;1 million longitudinal study involving 50,000 students - one in five entrants. This would follow them through their university career, tracking the link between SAT results and their subsequent progress.
"We're probably looking at 2010 before it would become a universal test," he says.
In the USA, SATs have come under increasing criticism in recent years for giving well-off students at good schools an unfair advantage, as well as for discriminating against girls and ethnic-minority students.
But three years ago Sir Peter's Sutton Trust funded a trial conducted by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) which partly disproved these claims. The study, which involved 1,300 pupils, suggested that at least some children attending poorly-performing schools would stand a better chance of getting into a top university on the basis of aptitude tests than they would on A-level results.
The results showed that 30 out of 630 students from schools with poor overall results achieved SAT scores of 1,200 or more - which can be good enough for admission to the elite American Ivy League universities (along with top grades). Of these, only one managed the three grades at A-level necessary for entry to Oxford and Cambridge.
The NFER concluded that, while American SATs appeared no better than GCSEs or A-levels at predicting university performance, regardless of social or educational background, they did measure something different.
The NFER study also found no evidence that candidates' test scores varied according to their race (the sample was small) but it did find boys tended to do better than girls, especially in maths.
Further NFER research for the Sutton Trust has found that coaching does boost SAT scores, especially in maths, but after about 10 or 12 hours produces diminishing returns.
A proposal for another national test might be expected to elicit another national groan, especially from teachers already struggling with national curriculum tests and recent changes to A-levels.
In fact, the reaction so far has been more positive than negative among both schools and universities. John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said the tests would add useful information beyond A-level and help to level the playing field of university admissions.
A MORI poll, conducted for Sir Sir Peter's Sutton Trust shortly before the Schwartz report was published, found a surprising 55 per cent of secondary teachers in England and Wales were in favour.
But positive responses to the idea are by no means universal. Independent schools are sceptical about introducing the tests, saying it would be much better simply to address the weakness which has been allowed to develop in the A-level grading process.
John Guy, principal of Farnborough sixth-form college in Hampshire, thinks much of the problem could be solved if universities looked more closely at the existing A-level marks.
"While 24 per cent or so of students may get a grade A in a subject, only 6 per cent get a grade A in each of their six modules," he pointed out in the Independent recently.
Martin Stephen, high master of Manchester grammar school and chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference of leading independent schools, queries the whole notion of seeking potential rather than achievement among applicants to UK universities.
"We're doing young people no favours sending them off to university - especially for science or engineering courses - if they don't have a sound knowledge base," he says.
Cambridge university is also sceptical about the virtues of the American SAT.
"We did consider the test when we first looked at additional measures for selecting candidates," says Geoff Parks, director of admissions for the Cambridge colleges. "But we ruled them out for two reasons.
"First, there was rather compelling evidence that they were coachable, and we wanted any test to be a test of the individual, not of circumstances.
"Second, while they might be suitable for the American context, where you are admitted to a university rather than to a specific course, the UK is different. We were concerned that they would not test aptitude for a particular subject. So we went down the route of our own tests."
Applicants to Cambridge now face one of four tests on top of A-levels.
Mathematicians must take the STEP paper, developed at Cambridge (and also used by Warwick university). Those applying for medicine take the BMAT, also used by Oxford and University College London (and soon by would-be vets applying to Bristol).
From this autumn, the Cambridge law department will be one of eight university law schools assessing candidates on their performance in the new LMAT.
And, perhaps most significant of all, Cambridge has developed a non-subject specific Thinking Skills Assessment, now used by most colleges to assess applicants for computer science, economics, engineering and natural sciences.
All of these tests, says Dr Parks, are "as uncoachable as any can be". He cites as proof that results in the BMAT, for instance, have not improved year on year.
Dr Parks concedes that a SAT-type test might be helpful in subjects like English and history and says the university will look with great interest at any pilot studies.
"But I don't think we would take the view that American SATs should be the test for all Cambridge courses," he says.