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Last Updated: Monday, 5 April, 2004, 16:40 GMT 17:40 UK
Testing for the best students
Geoff Parks
Geoff Parks: "These are skills which we believe bright kids will have"
A report on fair admissions to higher education advocates common types of entrance tests for universities that do not feel A-levels tease out the best candidates.

The interim report from the government-appointed taskforce has been considering the sorts of tests used increasingly already for entry to some law, medicine and veterinary courses.

Most colleges at Cambridge University have now adopted a "thinking skills assessment" - faced with a situation where they get so many good applicants they reject 5,000 a year who have at least three A grades at A-level.

This is the basis of the BMat (BioMedical Admissions Test) with subject-specific questions for applicants to medical courses.

Identifying potential

Cambridge University's director of admissions, Geoff Parks, said it had two main advantages.

"The evidence is the tests differentiate amongst a large group of applicants who in many respects look very similar on their paper application," he said.

"Secondly there are very strong signs that the test has the ability to identify potential, so that some of the applicants who score very highly on the tests have examination records which don't look quite so good on paper."

Robert Harding, Ucles
Robert Harding says the tests are as fair as they can be
This might be due to educational disadvantage - they did not attend such a good school.

"The tests are very much designed to test skills which are, if you like, inherent in a good student - the ability to think clearly, solve problems, extract the relevant information from a collection of facts.

"These are skills which we believe bright kids will have and therefore they will show through even if their examination record's not quite as good."

Student Christopher Chan
It's fairer to us all
Student Christopher Chan
He said they were "very much skills which are useful for study at university".

Robert Harding of the exam board behind the tests, the University of Cambridge local examinations syndicate (Ucles), said he thought the tests provided "as level a playing field as we know how to make".

"You can't be trained to do these questions as if you were a performing seal, you really do have to think very hard about the answers."

Would-be medical students at Hills Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge, who have taken the tests, tend to agree.

Student Lisa Ng
It gives you better opportunities to shine
Student Lisa Ng
They described them as "tough", "very hard" and "challenging" and said they felt under pressure doing them.

"Time pressure was the most difficult thing for me," said Antony Brown.

"It definitely wasn't about knowledge, it was more a test of how you work under pressure."

But he felt it did make things fairer.

"You can't prepare for it, so everyone is even once you start."

Christopher Chan said: "It's not really fair to state school pupils if private school pupils can be tutored about it, so it creates a level playing field.

"This is fairer to all. They can assess you fairly on the basis of your intellectual ability rather than how well you have been coached."

The BBC's Mike Baker
"Distinguishing between the brightest students is a growing problem for the top universities"

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