Standardized tests for UK boarding schools?

Overseas-education | Pat Moores 19 Oct 2021

One question international parents often ask Rafael Garcia-Krailing is: “Why are there different tests for each school my child is applying to?” And, said the director at UK Education Guide: “I struggle to answer.”

This is a scenario many Hong Kong parents face.

Most high quality education agents advise that best practice is to apply to three schools to ensure there are many school offers to consider.

Three application fees are paid, three application forms are completed and then each school advises that the child will need to sit tests. There are often three tests for each school – so nine in total.

Children are already tired from school work and so parents have to schedule in nine tests that may, due to ongoing Covid-19 restrictions, have to be taken online. A remote invigilator may be needed to supervise the tests and/or a parent may need to sit and supervise the tests over several days to avoid burn out.

Is this process putting the child first?

Many have tried and failed to introduce a generic testing procedure. Of course, the Common Entrance exam is suitable for domestic pupils, but has no English as an Additional Language aspect, so was never suitable for many international pupils.

However, isn’t it time to look at this again? With all the restrictions Covid-19 has placed on international enrolments, there has surely never been a better time to look at developing a standardized testing procedure for all UK boarding schools?

Caroline Nixon, director of British Association of Independent Schools with International Students, said: “Anything that breaks down barriers between potential pupils and schools is welcome. And the burden of testing certainly is one of those barriers.

“However, schools rightly want to be sure that there is a good fit between the child and their school as otherwise an unhappy experience for all could be the outcome. There is a conflict between these two aims which as yet remains to be resolved.”

Indeed, not everyone agrees that generic testing is the way to go. Gareth Collier, principal at Cardiff Sixth Form College, sees things very differently:

“The problem with a generic test is in the name. If it is generic, then it would provide only a relatively basic set of data about a student and insufficient specificity with regard for suitability for study, particularly at the highest level of learning in a UK school.

“Generic tests need to be accessible to a wide range of abilities. The range and style of questioning must be broad to be appropriate for every student and the amount of valuable data is therefore reduced, making selection for a chosen school or course much more of a lottery than when tests designed specifically for the chosen course or school are used.”

Of course, Collier is right that something will be lost with a generic test. However, the generic testing procedure would still need to be split by age group to make it more meaningful and cater for a spread of abilities, as current public examinations already do.

Collier also highlights rightly that there is now the offer of indicator tests that are available to parents to buy and for schools to offer to give an indication of the ability of the child and whether they are a suitable academic fit for a particular school.

An example of how new technology is being used to make indicator tests more robust is the Academic Profiling Tests, a new aptitude assessment for six to 16 year olds using an AI-powered platform that compares performance against UK national standards.

The APT can be taken at home, typically being completed in 90 to 100 minutes and assesses skills in English, maths, verbal reasoning and non-verbal processing. Using AI, the APT’s fully adaptive-questions adapt to the test taker’s ability, getting easier or harder depending on their previous responses.

It is hoped that, in time, this test may be offered by more schools, to replace their current entrance tests, but for now, the focus is on providing the tests to families to help assess their child’s abilities prior to a school application.

On the other side of the discussion, Mike Oliver from Brooke House College sees significant value in a generic testing procedure and points out that the “gold standard” of IELTS testing for assessing English language capabilities already exists.

“IELTS is a known standard and is relevant to a wide range of UK boarding schools. I regard that form of common entrance requirement as a good thing. If a pupil arrives with an IELTS score of 6.5, everyone knows what that means in terms of English language ability and what then might be expected of the pupil with such a score and possible future outcomes at A-level, for instance.”

He also points out that for sixth form entry, success in IGCSEs/GCSEs is recognized by almost all schools as an indicator of ability and yet these are generic tests, with different levels of success built in. If this is possible at GCSE level in Year 11, why isn’t it possible at Year 9 level?

Certainly schools like to have their own tests and think they are unique to them, but almost all test the same things: English, maths and verbal reasoning.

IELTS is a generic English test accepted globally already. How hard therefore would it be to develop generic tests for maths and verbal reasoning?

The tests could and should be developed to be secure and success levels (as at GCSE) should be built into the tests – so if a school is highly selective then the benchmark for entry would be a level 7 or 8 for example, whereas for a less selective school it could be 4 or 5. Results from the same test would be shared with the relevant schools and no school would know which other schools were receiving the same results.

It is also vitally important the tests are developed by an independent, reputable organization. However, are schools willing to relinquish their unique tests?

As new players enter the market looking to automate the application process, they will drive forward this approach. So perhaps it would be better for schools to own this development now.

Pat Moores is the director of UK Education Guide, an independent source of advice and information about UK Education providers.


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