American-style aptitude tests could help universities in the UK to recruit talented students who do not show up well in traditional A-levels, researchers say.
Peter Lampl, the philanthropist behind the Sutton Trust, which commissioned the research, said it showed the tests could become another tool for universities seeking the best students.
They could thereby widen their intake in terms of social background without lowering academic standards, he added.
But the research report that there was no evidence to suggest that Scholastic Assessment Tests were any better than GCSEs or A-levels at predicting the chances of success on a degree course.
The two biggest head teachers’ associations welcomed the study, of 70 state and independent secondary schools, and called for a wider trial to be undertaken.
Boys beat girls
The Sutton Trust commissioned the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) to conduct a pilot involving 1,295 sixth formers, who took a written test of verbal reasoning skills and a maths test before sitting their A-levels last summer.
Of those, 101 came from six selective private day schools, 564 from 25 state schools in the top 40% for GCSE results and 630 from 40 state schools in the bottom 40% at GCSE.
The NFER found that boys did better in the SATs than girls, especially in maths.
Asian-British and black British students performed least well of all the ethnic groups included, while Chinese youngsters came out on top, although the NFER stressed that those findings could be unreliable as the numbers involved were small.
The highest scores were achieved by middle-class children, the lowest by those with working-class parents.
Thirty students from state schools with relatively poor exam results - 5% of the whole study group - got more than 1,200 on the SAT, a score which would be high enough for them to be considered by elite American universities.
But only one of those 30 got three A grades in their A-level exams, which is in effect the minimum requirement to be considered by Oxford or Cambridge.
SAT scores were more closely linked to GCSE grades.
The NFER said that while SATs were not necessarily a better measure of how well a person would do at university, they did look at something different to A-levels, and could therefore be useful alongside the traditional exam.
Assistant director Chris Whetton said: "The studies demonstrate that there should be a continuing investigation of aptitude tests for university selection.
"However, claims that tests can identify aptitude for university education regardless of social and academic background were not supported.
"The effects on student motivation and learning also need to be investigated."
Mr Lampl, who is an adviser to Education Secretary David Blunkett as well as the Higher Education Funding Council, said universities should now do their own follow-up studies.
"The results of the research encourage me to believe that the use of an SAT-type test could complement achievement tests such as A-levels and could broaden intake to British universities without lowering standards," he said.
In a joint response, the National Association of Head Teachers and the Secondary Heads Association said they supported ways of identifying potential for higher education in students whose backgrounds made them unlikely to do well at A-level.
"We fully support the recommendation in the recent NFER report that a wider pilot, using a British version of the tests, be carried out in order to see how they could be introduced without adding to the costs and workload of schools or to the uncertainties and unfairness of the present system," they said.
The Education Secretary, David Blunkett, has expressed interest in the tests and will be considering the report.
February 28, 2001