College Admissions Testing In Britain And France
September 29, 2011, 03:33 PM
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It's interesting to compare college admissions in the U.S. to other countries. Here's an NYT article on Britain:
For over half a century, academically inclined students in Britain or other countries who hoped to study at British universities spent their final two years at school studying for A-levels, widely regarded as the gold standard of British education. These single-subject tests are generally considered more rigorous than the French baccalaureate and roughly comparable to the Advanced Placement exams in the United States.

Originally offered only in traditional academic subjects like English language and literature, mathematics, foreign languages and the sciences, in recent years the range has broadened to include media studies, health and social care, business studies, and travel and tourism. The grading ranges from A* and A down to E, and results are announced in early August.Typically, a student will take three or four A-levels, which are administered in May and June of a student’s senior year.

Since students currently submit university applications between September and January of their senior year — before they even take their A-levels — most British universities admit candidates with conditional offers, based on the A-level grades students are predicted to get by their teachers. For example, a student hoping to study medicine at Bristol, which last year admitted only 216 candidates out of over 3,100 applications, would need predicted grades of at least 2 A’s (including an A in chemistry) and one B.

However, according to the University & Colleges Admissions Service, or UCAS, the private organization that manages university applications in Britain, A-level predictions are only accurate about 45 percent of the time. Students who fail to make their predicted grades face a last-minute scramble for university places and often end up in courses based on the availability of places rather than their own interests or aptitudes. Critics of the system also argue that teenagers from low-income homes often do not believe themselves capable of being admitted to the best universities; by the time they receive the grades that might have prompted them to aim higher, it is too late.

Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of UCAS, said at a meeting of university heads in London last week, according to news reports, that starting in 2016 students should wait to receive their actual A-level grades before applying to universities. Under one set of proposals, students would take their exams before what is now the Easter break, which would mean a five-month summer vacation. Results would be available in July, with applications due in August.

Britain Seeks to Smooth Path to University, By D. D. Guttenplan, September 26, 2011

It goes on to talk about the French system as well.In the second half of the 20th Century in the U.S., the two main pillars of the admissions process were high school grades and aptitude tests (SAT/ACT).

Those were traditionally viewed as something of polar opposites: High school GPA was a pretty good predictor of college GPA for the same reason that a baseball pitcher's ERA in the minors is a pretty good predictor of his ERA in the majors. GPA measured not only aptitude but also work ethic and effectualness. But, it had the problem that GPAs weren't nationally calibrated (e.g., which high school's grading is tougher: a 3.65 at Poly in Pasadena or a 3.65 at Poly in Sun Valley)?

Further, grades could be gamed in lots of ways–e.g., tutors could be hired to do projects, students could cheat off other students during final exams, parents can complain to teachers to get grades raised, and so forth.

So, the SAT was envisioned as a national test of aptitude that couldn't be studied for.

It's a big national news story this week that seven students at a fancy high school in Long Island were caught paying a college student $1500-$2500 to take their SATs for them, but that's a bit of a man bites dog story. The SAT really does have better security than many GPA related activities.

Over the years, standardized achievement tests have arisen within the American system that attempt to garner the advantages of GPA with national comparability of SAT/ACT: the SAT Subject tests, which are one hour multiple choice tests on specific subjects like American History, and the Advanced Placement tests. AP tests are rather like the British A-levels. They have a lot of prima facie validity at predicting college grades because they are similar to a comprehensive final exam in a college freshman level course

The AP tests aren't much used at present, in part for the same reasons that the British are dissatisfied with the A-levels: they are mostly given after college admissions decisions are made and they take a long time to grade.

About a half decade ago, the SAT was made more like the SAT Subject tests by incorporating the Subject test's writing essay and various other changes. But, are we losing the value of the differences between the SAT aptitude test and the SAT Subject achievement tests?

My general recommendations for designing college admissions would be to be aware of the ever-intensifying efforts to game the process by Tiger Mothers of all stripes and sexes. Institutional responses could come in two forms:

  •  Make some parts of the process harder to game
  •  Channel gaming efforts into actual learning. For example, putting more weight on the compromise measures (Subject tests and AP tests) might actually get students to, say, learn more chemistry or history as a byproduct of their frenzy to game the admissions process.