Hurdles or Help? The changing face of admissions tests in Higher Education

27 July 2007

Our education system now places huge pressures on selectors in Higher Education. Admissions tests are emerging as a powerful means of supporting the widening participation agenda and selecting those who will derive most benefit from Higher Education.

To be fit for purpose, such tests must be good predictors of attainment in HE. It is essential that they are founded on solid research and backed by robust evidence of their validity. There is little to be gained - by anyone - in simply adding a new raft of tests which measure the same things which are assessed in established public examinations.

Cambridge Assessment has assisted selectors in Higher Education for more than 20 years. Its research and development work has highlighted that any additional element of admissions processes has to be of sufficient value to justify the further demand which it places on both the system and on individuals:

  • It must contribute high quality information on applicants and not duplicate information from other sources.
  • It must aid more effective decision-making by those responsible for admissions.
  • It must be appropriate to the education of our young people in the UK have received.

Are admissions tests really necessary? There is strong evidence that they are. In the case of Cambridge Assessment's suite of admissions tests - the Thinking Skills Assessment (TSA), the BioMedical Admissions Test (BMAT) and uniTEST - we have carefully grown our tests as a result of needs identified by HE institutions themselves. Those responsible for admissions have emphasised the need for well designed tests in the face of the challenges of high demand for certain courses, the importance of getting the right people onto courses, and the need to identify those who may have experienced less effective schooling but are nonetheless capable of high level study. The continued use of the tests shows not only that they are fulfilling an important purpose, but also allows continuing accumulation of validation data - making sure that the tests are fulfilling a unique purpose and measuring what they intend to measure.

Arising from a real need to manage admissions better, the tests can be seen as a sign of our increasingly sophisticated understanding of individuals' attainments and how to identify potential. When well-designed and well-managed, they are about getting people on the right track, not about putting unnecessary hurdles or barriers in their way.