‘We’re looking at a huge vote of no confidence in reformed A levels’

Cambridge’s decision to introduce an entrance test leaves more questions than it answers, writes one leading educationalist

Kevin Stannard

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The University of Cambridge is to introduce new tests for applicants, providing “valuable additional evidence of (their) academic abilities, knowledge base and potential”. It brings Cambridge more into line with the University of Oxford’s approach; however, Cambridge stresses that the tests will be used to provide additional evidence, not to filter applicants or ‘de-summon’ them from interview.

Pre-interview tests will be administered in-school for most courses. Applicants to, say, English or natural sciences, will now join their peers hoping to read medicine, who already have to sit the BioMedical Admissions Test (BMAT) ahead of interviews. In a few subjects, such as classics, law and modern languages, the test will be administered at interview.

Alarm at loss of AS level

This is a huge vote of no confidence in the ability of the reformed A level to reverse the decline in confidence in the public exam’s capacity to identify the brightest students. More urgently, it reflects the university’s alarm about the loss of AS grades, on which they’ve leaned heavily as a differentiator.

Cambridge’s obsession with AS scores is difficult to understand. The claim that AS scores are good predictors of degree results seems to ignore the fact that its sample is self-selective, rendering its conclusions circular. It ignores all the applicants who were denied a place with slightly less impressive AS scores, and the other highly-scoring applicants who nevertheless failed to secure a place. How differently would they have performed?

Unintended consequences

Furthermore, the lack of Year 12 AS results has not hindered Cambridge from dealing fairly with applicants following IB diploma or Cambridge Pre-U courses, those studying A levels linearly, and those bearing international qualifications.

The move by Cambridge has been widely welcomed by secondary-sector leaders, both state and independent. But it is worth thinking about some of the unintended consequences of a shift towards additional assessments.

The assurance that no advance preparation is needed chimes with the desire for a level playing field. But no test is unteachable, no matter how ‘content-free’. Prospective applicants will want to acquaint themselves with the style and format of the test, and many will want to put in some practice. Cambridge stresses that this is not a return to entrance exams – surely a distinction without a difference.

Tests looming large

The tests interpose another set of hurdles for which students will have to prepare, at a time when they are supposed to be focusing on their public exams. Tests will loom ever larger throughout Year 13. A level, which is supposed to be the national qualification for proceeding to the next stage, stands to be devalued still further, its distinctiveness diluted by the addition of yet another set of assessment points.

In contrast to the conditions pertaining when entrance exams were last in place, today’s exam environment is a highly contentious one, and people are much more willing to challenge the results. With test scores counting for so much, the universities might have to handle not just the cost of test administration (setting, revising, standardising, marking), but possibly also the knock-on costs of dealing with appeals. Good luck with that.

Dr Kevin Stannard is the director of innovation and learning at the Girls' Day School Trust 

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Kevin Stannard

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