Is the American Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) the right generic test for HE admissions in England?

04 October 2007

Given that there is currently a large Government-funded trial in place, it may seem premature to even ask this question. The five-year, £1.6million trial - was given backing by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES), the Sutton Trust and the College Board which owns the SAT - is currently in its second year. An interim report has been produced by NFER and is available on its website.

The study aims to provide information on:

  • How the SAT can help predict university outcomes together with A Levels
  • Whether aptitude tests can distinguish between the most able students who get straight As at A Level
  • If they can help identify students from disadvantaged backgrounds who may have the potential to benefit from higher education

These are very sensible aims, however, research carried out by Cambridge Assessment suggests that serious question marks hang over the use of the SAT in the English context. There's good reason for unease.

Firstly, even at this stage, there is growing concern over the SAT in its own domestic context, in the USA. Indeed, there is increasing interest in curriculum-linked assessments such as the Advanced Placement Award, rather than the ability oriented SAT1, the test which is being trialled here. Despite many UK-commentators' assumptions, the SAT1 is not the sole, or pre-eminent, test used as part of American HE admissions.

Secondly, Cambridge Assessment's work on the SAT has focussed on the content of the SAT - what it purports to measure and what it actually measures. We were surprised that no-one had thought to do a content mapping of the SAT onto the content of the National Curriculum and therefore the content of GCSEs. In the US, there are no national qualifications such as GCSE or A levels. This is a problem in HE admissions, where students may apply for HE institutions outside the state in which they have gone through High School. In that context, a test which focuses on some common curriculum content makes a lot of sense - it ensures a minimum coverage of essential curriculum content.

With all this in mind, Cambridge Assessment reviewed the content of the SAT against the content of the National Curriculum. What we found surprised us, and has surprised those from the policy community with whom we have discussed our findings.

The analysis indicates that:

  • The SAT1 content is largely pitched at GCSE-level curriculum content in English and Maths, and replicates GCSE assessment of that content.
  • The item types and item content in the SAT1 are very similar to that of GCSEs.

In developing admissions tests, we believe that it is essential to develop tests which make a unique and additional contribution to the information available to HE selectors, not merely replicates information already available. On the basis of this study, we believe that it is indeed right to ask the question 'Is the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) the right generic test for HE admissions in England?' and that serious questions should be asked now rather than waiting for the end of the five year trial.

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