Oh, America. The land that gave the world 14 of its 20 best universities – and QAnon.
Even as an American, I can’t explain the incongruity of it all. The magical diversity of 328 million people, I guess.
As Britain decides if it wants to shift over to post-qualifications admissions (PQA) like we have in the USA, I thought it would be helpful to unpack our system, and to outline why a subject-agnostic qualification – a QAnon, so to speak – might help aid in a transition to PQA.
Where we go one we go all
America’s so huge. David Kernohan’s explanation of how our admissions system works is spot on, but let me add some context. You are in London one sunny pre-Covid evening, and everyone aged 20 to 40 decides to go out to the pub. Your Sky isn’t working, and you have a game to watch.
Meanwhile, 2 million people are scrambling to get into one of 3,500 pubs before last orders. They are all screaming that it is the most important decision of their life. You wonder if you really want to go out at all.
You don’t know which of the 3,500 options you’ll choose. You just want to get in.
It’s frankly pretty stressful for everyone that night.
How do you get 2 million people in somewhere they will be happy, or else they might quit or sue? In America, we use contextual post-qualification admissions (PQA), although as David rightly points out, our Qs are different to the British system.
Arguably, the most important Q for elite entry is called the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). The SAT started out in life as an IQ test for Army recruits, but in time replaced the Imperial Chinese-style entrance exams once used by places like Harvard. It is, however, basically an Imperial Chinese-style exam in English and Maths, and you can pay good money to learn how to do well on it. Or maybe you can just buy a higher IQ?
It’s imperfect, but it’s what we have.
The upside of the SAT (or ACT, a similar exam) is that once you have your score, you can begin to seriously gauge where you stand against the national cohort of applicants. I went to a state school that normalised early childhood exposure to asbestos, so I pegged my worth to that. In the end, I did well, and my aspirations were significantly raised by my score. Other friends did less so and considered a different set of options. Either way, though, it gave us the agency to make a realistic choice for ourselves.
Fake news and alt-facts
Here’s a true story. A person I know felt her predicted grades were low, so she was looking forward to proving her ability on her A-levels. About two months before her exams, it came to light that her teacher was having a sordid affair on school premises. This clearly distracted teacher also taught the wrong curriculum, so she was dismissed on the spot. This person I know felt – in the truest sense of the word – that her chances of university entry were screwed, so she didn’t apply.
This is just one further anecdote of why a grades-based system is problematic. Some things students can control, and some things, they can’t. If something as quotidian as lust can derail everything, perhaps another form of evidence is needed.
The great awakening
The SAT (or ACT) score, teacher-assessed grades and a personal statement act as our ‘strong triangle’, not dissimilar to our system of checks and balances. These are normally reviewed in their totality over a period taking 16 weeks, and strong performance in one can counterbalance a weaker result in another.
One criticism levelled at current proposals for implementing PQA in the UK, including the University and College Union’s report, is that proposed timelines don’t build in enough time for these important checks. The report recommends ways to mitigate this, but if they rely on additional government funding, then this approach may be either unworkable or precarious in the longer term.
I’m a truther
A standardised test taken towards the end of the penultimate year might be a pragmatic solution. The intention of the SAT – to measure intellectual ability – isn’t a bad one, although there’s some debate about whether this is what it actually does. There is evidence, though, that if you take a measure of a student’s ability to reason and combine it with grades, you can end up with a more truthful reflection of how they will do once in higher education.
Something like the SAT would also confer other benefits, perhaps more so for disadvantaged students: it would help minimise the application burden at the selective end of study, as applicants wouldn’t have to sit multiple institution-specific tests; it would gift students the agency to make informed choices themselves; and it would further underpin a university’s confidence in an applicant. It may also act to circumvent the damage caused by low quality teaching, as a high score could offset weak grades.
Build the wall…or back better
The SAT’s focus on both maths and English wouldn’t work in the UK, but Oxford’s Thinking Skills Assessment might be a useful model. The idea would be that this test is delivered online in school settings, and there would be no cost to students to participate. There could also be modular add-ons that capture other areas of extra-curricular ability, such as an NHS Values Test.
The application process could start in the same timeframe as it does now with the submission of a personal statement, this score, and GCSE results. A student could then choose whether or not to submit one or all of their predicted grades as well. This should mean that, as it is in the States, final grades become something of a formality for most applicants, which is arguably the fairest approach. Universities could then post an indication of the candidate’s likelihood of success in advance of August, and then offers could be made once grades are in.
The intention behind a shift to PQA is to be fair and advance opportunity. With the right processes in place, there is no reason why a system that works for 2 million people across 3,500 institutions can’t work here as well.