Cambridge casts net wider with 'uncrammable' test

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The Independent Online

Hundreds of Cambridge university applicants will sit new exams in thinking skills this year in the biggest push so far towards helping students from disadvantaged backgrounds win places despite poorer A-level grades.

The 90-minute papers, called Thinking Skills Assessment, will be sat by at least 1,400 candidates this autumn to assess applicants' problem-solving and reasoning skills rather than using their predicted A-level grades alone. The skills are considered crucial to success at university.

The University of Cambridge local examinations syndicate (Ucles), which developed the tests, said they would be "uncrammable" and fairer to talented students from poorer backgrounds not forecast to get the straight A-grades the university normally expected.

Yesterday, a government taskforce, led by Professor Steven Schwartz, the vice-chancellor of Brunel University, provoked accusations of social engineering after unveiling options aimed at making university admissions fairer. He asked universities to consider whether other methods of predicting potential, such as scholastic aptitude tests used in the US, should be used alongside A-level results.

But Ucles insisted its new thinking skills tests were far superior to aptitude tests because they measured skills directly relevant to university studies rather than judging IQ.

"The idea is, it is less susceptible to coaching so money cannot buy privileged applicants a better result," a spokesman for the board said. "We have tried to develop tests to assess who will do best at university. It is about seeing how someone thinks.

"It is an additional tool to enable admissions tutors to take a more objective view and it will help colleges choose between the many people who apply with straight A-grades. But there are also lots of people who are not getting A-grades at A-level who may be better candidates. If, from their report or interview, it looks as if they have real flair, this test will enable colleges to tell if they are really good. It will enable colleges to stretch their net wider."

Cambridge, and Oxford University, have introduced a biomedical admissions test (BMAT) for medical students. The BMAT is a 60-minute skills test, a 30-minute test of scientific knowledge and a 30-minute writing task.

Cambridge colleges often set informal tests before interviewing candidates but the new thinking skills papers are the first attempt by the university to introduce one university-wide paper, which could eventually cover all subjects.

The tests will be taken by more than 1,400 applicants to 17 of the university's colleges this year. Initially, the tests will be sat by applicants for computer science, natural sciences, engineering and economics, but the exam board hopes colleges will adopt them for every subject.

The 90-minute test consists of 50 multiple choice questions, 25 in problem-solving and 25 in critical thinking.

"Many of the problems encountered in academic and professional work are novel," say the board's guidance on the new exams, published yesterday. "The task is to find or create a solution. The skill of critical thinking is basic to any academic study and often involve considering an argument put forward to promote or defend a particular point of view. These are both skills which are considered to be important in higher education."

The board has been developing the tests since the mid-1980s when the number of people wishing to go to university grew rapidly. Many of them did not have traditional entry qualifications. Then, there was a view that A-levels were not always the best predictors of ability to succeed at university, so the board began developing an additional test.

Janet Graham, head of Cambridge University's admissions office, said the tests were an important part of the drive to widen university access. "This will form part of the debate about university admissions," she said. "This is another tool for admissions tutors."

SAMPLE QUESTION

PROBLEM SOLVING

Mr Jones has to renew the white lines on a 1km stretch of road. Each edge of the road is marked with a solid line and there is a "dashed" line in the centre. Drivers are warned of approaching bends by two curved arrows. Mr Jones will have to paint four curved arrows. The manufacturers have printed the following guidance on each 5-litre drum of paint:

Solid lines - 5 metres per litre
Dashed lines - 20 metres per litre
Curved lines - 3 litres each.

How many drums of paint will Mr Jones require?

A 53
B 92
C 93
D 103
E 462

ANSWER: C

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