Will standardised testing increase standards?

English universities will begin to pilot national administered standardised tests for undergraduate students. Standardised tests are non-subject-specific exams and will be trialled to see if they could be used to measure ‘learning gain’ in skills and competencies during university. The pilot system, which was announced in September, has £4 million of funding available and will be tested at over 70 universities and colleges across the country. The universities of University of East Anglia, The University of Manchester and University of Warwick are among the universities taking part in the pilot scheme.

Standardised testing has already been developed and running in the US and could prove useful to UK students who wish to compare the standards between universities and colleges. The funding council is providing fire-power for 12 projects that will test the different methods of measuring learning gain, and seven of these will include standardised testing. The remaining projects will also explore survey data, personal development folders and portfolios created by students, and students’ grades as methods of measuring learning gain.

However, standardised testing has already been introduced at different institutions across the country. The universities of Cardiff and Manchester use this method on medical science degree courses. These tests are taken several times throughout the year and has the expectation of students improving over time. This approach titled Progress Testing, may encourage students to take responsibility for their own learning and studying.

Madeleine Atkins who is Hefce’s chief executive said these pilots ‘have the potential to support measurement and indicators at institutional and even national level’ but also have the ability to ‘improve learning and teaching practice in universities and colleges’.

The universities minister, Jo Johnson stated that the results from these pilots ‘will help assess teaching quality and excellence and ultimately provide better value for all students’.

Plans for standardised testing was introduced after concerns over the degree classification system appeared with suggestions that the system isn’t as efficient for displaying students’ progress when compared with A-level scores.

The Hefce pilot will determine whether standardised testing can be successfully introduced in the UK and will include up to 50,000 students taking part in the pilot system. The favoured approach is for the test to be taken at two separate occasions during a students’ time at university, and would be isolated from degree-related assessments.

King’s College London’s Baroness Wolf of Dulwich expressed that the standardised testing ‘might be very helpful to individuals as a way of demonstrating their achievement’, however, indicated that subject-specific exams were preferable. Although, she did show concern by stating that generic testing was unable to fully measure the performance of the university as well as the differences between degree courses, institutions and syllabi.

However, standardised testing could, in fact, impact student performance and opinion in a negative way. Undergraduates have many assessments, exams and projects to work on throughout the academic year without the pressure of having to complete up to several ‘generic’ tests on top of these.

Would students vote in favour of completing extra assessments, especially if it is in no way related to their degree studies?