National university entrance test to be piloted

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A new national university entrance test that could help spot bright youngsters from deprived homes will be tried out in 1,000 schools this September.

The two-and-a-half hour test, to be taken by sixth-formers as they start their A-level year, is designed to identify the cleverest applicants. It could also be used to select students with difficult backgrounds who have the potential to do better than affluent students.

Universities have pressed for the more widespread use of entrance tests in the wake of the growing numbers of youngsters presenting themselves for popular courses - with three grade-A passes at A-level.

More than one in five A-level scripts are now awarded an A-grade pass. The test, being developed by an international consortium of exam boards - the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate (UCLES) and the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER), will be operational by 2008. By then, any university - or faculty within a university - will be able to use it to sift through candidates.

The decision to develop the test follows a government inquiry into university admissions - headed by Professor Steven Schwartz, vice-chancellor of Brunel University - which favoured a national entrance test for higher education instead of individual universities introducing their own tests.

Ron McLone, head of assessment at UCLES, and Professor Geoff Masters, chief executive of ACER, said the test would "give institutions a valid and reliable instrument for achieving their selection and/or widening participation objectives". The test is likely to win the backing of headteachers. John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said: "In principle, the test would help to level the playing field. Clearly, it would have to be one that could not be coached for but - as a means of delivering information to admissions officers not just on achievement but on potential - it would be useful to have such a test." The results would be ready in time for students to include in their Ucas forms.

The test will consist of 96 multiple-choice questions - aimed at assessing formal reasoning, critical reasoning and verbal and plausible reasoning. Each of the three sections will be marked separately - with, for instance, more weight being given to formal reasoning for maths candidates and verbal and plausible reasoning for law, history or economics.