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Improving tertiary admissions in uncertain times
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Improving tertiary admissions in uncertain times

Feature 5 minute read

Disruptions to the 2020 academic year have created uncertainty about the timing of senior secondary school examinations and the release of tertiary admission rankings. What can tertiary institutions do to enable student selection for 2021 that is as transparent, equitable and efficient as possible?

While senior school achievement is undoubtedly the dominant admission pathway to further study among school completers, institutions can respond to the challenges of a disrupted school year by leveraging existing alternate pathways.

Alternate selection methods to school achievement include other qualifications, mature-age student provisions, interviews, aptitude tests and folios. Research published in International Perspectives on Higher Education Admission Policy shows that, in Australia, around four in every five commencing university students aged 18 and under are selected on the basis of their secondary school achievement alone, compared to one in every five students aged 19 and above.

For school leavers, though, this heavy reliance on academic achievement for tertiary admissions can lead to socioeconomic bias in selection.

Numerous studies have found that students from high socioeconomic backgrounds tend to perform better in the final year of schooling. As such, students from low socioeconomic backgrounds are less likely to be selected for university on the basis of their ATAR compared to other admission pathways.

With the shift to remote learning expected to further disadvantage students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, it is important that tertiary institutions have provisions in place to ensure that those with the capacity to do well at university are able to gain admission. 

Aptitude testing in tertiary admissions

Multi-tool selection policies have been shown to improve the diversity of the student intake without compromising retention or progression rates. For example, aptitude tests can be used alongside academic achievement to provide greater insight into the abilities of applicants and ensure they are selected into the most appropriate courses.

An Australian Government-commissioned research project found that aptitude test results were a better predictor of success at university than Year 12 results, but using the two measures in combination provides an even more powerful means of predicting performance.

While Year 12 examinations measure specific knowledge, aptitude tests measure innate and acquired skills such as problem solving, critical thinking, written communication, non-verbal reasoning and scientific reasoning. Because these skills are acquired throughout life, they are less susceptible to being derailed by external forces than a students’ ability to complete their final year of schooling via remote learning.

When using an aptitude test as part of the selection process, scores for individual parts of the test can be weighted to suit the needs of individual courses and faculties. This information can also be used to inform what support a student may require.

The Special Tertiary Admissions Test

The Special Tertiary Admissions Test (STAT) has been used by tertiary education institutions internationally as an alternative means for selecting applicants for more than 20 years.

Developed by ACER to help tertiary institutions admit students who are well suited to a broad range of academic programs, STAT is particularly useful as a tool that can supplement school achievement.

There are two different STAT test: STAT Multiple Choice and STAT Written English. The STAT Multiple Choice test measures verbal/critical reasoning and quantitative reasoning. The STAT Written English test measures a candidate’s ability to communicate effectively in writing. Every test question is carefully developed, scrutinised, trialled and analysed by teams of experienced higher education assessment and content experts before being included in the test.

STAT can be delivered online over a secure internet connection under live (webcam) supervision. This allows applicants to take the test in their own home while maintaining the required security of a high-stakes test. Results are available within four weeks of the testing date.

With the current uncertainty around Year 12 examinations, STAT can:

  • provide institutions with an understanding of applicants’ aptitude for tertiary study
  • assess applicants’ ability to understand and analyse information, and to think critically
  • allow matching of sub-scores to specific courses by identifying levels of aptitude in quantitative and verbal domains
  • complement applicants’ existing academic qualifications
  • support selection judgements and enhance transparency
  • make fair comparisons of prospective students with mixed experience and from different backgrounds.

Contact the STAT team for further information on how aptitude testing can support institutions to implement selection processes that are relevant, valid and reliable. ■