2 August 2023

The Future of Standardised Tests

Reviews and Reforms

With the standardised testing season looming over students and the recently announced reforms to UCAS personal statements, the discussion on the efficacy of standardised tests to fairly assess learning is resurfacing.

The one-size-fits-all approach

Standardised testing has been in place for a long time now – in the UK, A-levels became a prerequisite for attending university in the 1950s. With each passing year, the anxiety associated with sitting these exams continues to mount, for several reasons. The high stakes pupil’s face of gaining entry into their dream university, the weight of parental expectations, and the desire to meet one’s personal aspirations are just a few contributing factors.

Due to the critical nature of these exams, concerns have been raised about the effect of institutionalised biases on such an educational testing system, particularly in the post-pandemic education landscape. Students from low-income backgrounds or those without adequate English language skills are at a distinct disadvantage compared to their more privileged peers due to the uneven distribution of resources and support throughout UK schools.

Based on the report A-level and other 16 to 18 results released by the Department for Education (DfE) for the 2021/22 academic year [1], 58.2% of the students attending private schools achieved A* and A grades, while this percentage is only 34.4% for state-school students. This achievement gap can be correlated to the better facilities that private schools provide to their pupils, as well as their selective admission processes that disfavour students from less affluent backgrounds.

As a result, the standardised tests that act as the backbone of the UK educational system have evolved into an unfair barrier to the academic pursuits of disadvantaged pupils.

Based on the report A-level and other 16 to 18 results released by the Department for Education (DfE) for the 2021/22 academic year [1], 58.2% of the students attending private schools achieved A* and A grades, while this percentage is only 34.4% for state-school students. This achievement gap can be correlated to the better facilities that private schools provide to their pupils, as well as their selective admission processes that disfavour students from less affluent backgrounds. As a result, the standardised tests that act as the backbone of the UK educational system have evolved into an unfair barrier to the academic pursuits of disadvantaged pupils.

The middle ground

Abolishing standardised testing entirely is not an option as without it, there would be no way to accurately evaluate the nation’s education system. Thus, the system must be reviewed and modified to accurately reflect pupils’ abilities. There has been one such development in an equally important standardised process that is fuelling calls for reforms – the changes to UCAS personal statement requirements.

Reviews and reforms

Earlier this year, UCAS declared that it is revising its personal statement requirement for the 2025 admission cycle in an attempt to eliminate the unfair advantage held by pupils who are in a position to receive more individualised and focused guidance. The new application process will involve a series of short, targeted questions that are designed to steer applicants in the direction of crafting a well-rounded insight into their educational and life goals. Having written a personal statement myself, I believe this development has the potential to also relieve the stress of producing a single 4000-character essay that decides students’ academic futures.

The way forward

Following the same line of thought, there is a need for standardised tests to be more diverse in their question formats and evaluation methods. This would allow students to exhibit their knowledge in ways that suit their learning styles, allowing them to experience a more individualised and inclusive educational environment.

We can draw inspiration from Finland – a country lauded for its successful education system – for effectively tackling the limitations of standardised testing. By giving its teachers an opportunity to develop evaluation methods, Finland allows its students to be assessed in more creative and holistic ways, such as project-based or performance-based assessments. By adopting this idea and introducing project-based learning in addition to A-levels, students can gain a better insight into how they will be assessed in their future endeavours, better preparing them for university and work. In essence, although standardised testing is imperative in our educational systems, it should not come at the expense of hampering the futures of certain pupils. Therefore, reforms, such as integrating diverse assessment methods, are essential to counteract the impact of biases and create a level playing field.

– Submitted by our Ambassador Sanjana 👏 

[1] Department for Education (DfE), “A level and other 16 to 18 results, Academic year 2021/22,” GOV.UK Explore education statistics, Feb. 03, 2023. https://explore-education-statistics.service.gov.uk/find-statistics/a-level-and-other-16-to-18-results#dataBlock-3151fec9-a4e7-4447-b6ad-99913ff057dd-tables (accessed Mar. 17, 2023).

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