independent

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Aptitude tests likely for more top courses

Law, vet, pharmacy and teaching hopefuls may face HPAT exam

PRESSURE is mounting to extend controversial aptitude tests used for entry into medicine to other third-level courses.

Likely first areas that could be affected include pharmacy, veterinary medicine, law and even teaching.

The Department of Education and Science said the operation of the HPAT aptitude test for medicine this year will be monitored to see if such tests should be extended to other high points courses.

The decision to introduce the HPAT test for medicine caused a storm when many high-flying students with maximum points missed out on a place.

A move to extend the tests to other courses has been backed by the head of the Higher Education Authority (HEA), the employers' organisation IBEC and the Irish National Teachers Organisation.

All three organisations say the Leaving Certificate alone is no longer enough to measure the suitability of students for a range of courses. All three want a public debate on the issues.

The introduction of the HPAT aptitude test for helping to select medical students this year has caused a storm of controversy. Many students who got maximum points in their Leaving did badly in the two-and-a-half-hour aptitude test and lost out on a place when the results of both assessments were combined.

Consultant oncologist Prof John Crown said yesterday it was ludicrous to claim that a "ridiculous, non-validated Australian multiple-choice examination can predict which 17-year -olds have the natural aptitude to become good consultants and GPs 10 to 15 years later".

But its use has been strongly defended by the head of the HEA, the state agency which channels state funding to universities and other third-level colleges.

Tom Boland said HPAT, which was designed to recognise aptitude for a particular course, measured creativity, flexibility and initiative.

"Far from decrying the HPAT we should seek ways in which this approach can be used more widely in our education system in tandem with older, well-tried and trusted models of assessment," he said.

Mr Boland said the Leaving Certificate was not perfect. "Many students leave post-primary school with a capacity to memorise and regurgitate information but with poorly developed capacity for analysis and creative thinking," he added.

Incoming general secretary of the INTO, Sheila Nunan, said the primary teachers' union was open to the idea of broadening access to professional courses including teaching. An informed debate on reforming selection procedures would be welcome and useful, she said.

"While the CAO system is open and robust it is not without its limitations," said Ms Nunan.

Selection

"The exclusive use of Leaving Certificate results for selection and the points race that results from this excludes many suitable candidates from teaching as well as other courses.

"As educators, we have to be open to discussing a revision of selection procedures," she said. "This could include the use of aptitude tests or structured interviews."

Selection for undergraduate courses used to include an interview. This was discontinued more than a decade ago. However, interviews are still used as part of the selection process for postgraduate courses in colleges of education.

Tony Donohue, head of education with IBEC, said that while the Leaving Certificate had important strengths, examination papers tended to be very predictable and the unexpected was never welcome.

"The examination is driven by the pursuit of points and this trend has displaced other important aspects of education. These should include the development of conceptual skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, creativity and, most important of all, 'learning-to-learn' -- the spirit of inquiry."

Colleges, he said, should be encouraged to consider combining the Leaving results with the use of aptitude tests.

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