National tests ‘can get more poor pupils into university’

12th August 2016 at 01:00
Assessments could help admissions officers to widen access – but only if carried out in S5, says expert

Standardised national assessments could help pupils from poorer backgrounds into university, according to a report on the government’s controversial proposals.

But one expert has told TESS that this could only work by raising the upper age for such testing – into the already jam-packed year of S5.

Thinktank IPPR Scotland and assessment provider Renaissance Learning have published a report from an event that they hosted in Edinburgh in March, where the subject of national testing was discussed by schools, trade unions, universities, parents’ associations and government officials.

Delegates saw “potential for data from the assessments to…be used to make a betterinformed admission decision about what kind of offers to make to applicants from deprived backgrounds”.

Keith Topping, professor of educational and social research at the University of Dundee, said that traditional exams and paper tests included a lot of writing, which tended to favour more affluent pupils.

“Kids from disadvantaged areas certainly become very quickly brassed off with paper tests and they tend to be more motivated with computer tests,” he said.

Computer-based testing

He proposed a computer-based test of thinking skills, which could not be revised for.

“Might that not be something that avoids a lot of the cultural issues surrounding socio-economic disadvantage and actually gives clever but low-income kids a chance to show what they can do?” he asked.

The professor stressed, however, that S3 – the last stage at which the government’s standardised assessments will be taken – is too early to provide useful information for university admissions.

He suggested running assessments half-way through S5, perhaps covering literacy and numeracy, as well as thinking skills. This would provide a “more balanced view” of school leavers’ abilities when combined with the current exam system.

Professor Topping added: “National examinations have all sorts of problems, but the reality is that universities are wedded to them and have been for some time and are not going to let go of those very quickly – nor indeed, I suspect, are secondary teachers.”

James Bell, director of professional services at Renaissance Learning – which will not be bidding to become involved in Scotland’s national standardised assessments – said that exams measured performance at “a moment in time”, with success often depending on whether topics revised by students happened to come up.

Mr Bell also backed Professor Topping’s idea of tests in S5 – and in the years before – which he said could be set up so that they required no marking and produced results in 20 minutes.

But he added that such tests would only work if they had value for teachers, not just university and college admissions officers. If they were run every three or four months, he said, they could be tailored to help teachers fine-tune their teaching of each individual student.

“A system of standardised assessment could be used to measure the academic distance travelled by a student over the course of their education – rather than just the level they have reached,” said Mr Bell. “This could level the playing field for students from the least well-off backgrounds when they apply to university, as it would take into consideration factors like the effort they put in.”

James McEnaney, a lecturer and journalist who has campaigned against the government’s national testing plans by making a series of Freedom of Information requests, said that using standardised assessments to help students from poorer backgrounds into college and university was “an interesting proposition”.

But he added: “I think there’s more to be gained from properly reforming our approach to examination and certification in the senior phase.

“There’s no doubt that widening access to higher education should be a priority, but an increasing focus on standardised testing isn’t likely to deliver that, particularly when such testing includes inherent biases that favour better-off students.”

A government spokeswoman said: “We are working to widen access for students and we will take forward the Commission on Widening Access’ recommendation for a review of how universities assess their applicants. This would include considering whether there are ways in which they could increase fairness and more accurately evaluate students’ potential.”

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