News Comment

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Innovation and fairness can end college points race

Patrick Geoghegan

Published 18/08/2014 | 02:30

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Trinity College, Dublin

'If justice perishes, human life on earth has no meaning'. This was the favourite quote of one student who applied to Trinity this year through our innovative feasibility study in admissions, and they used Immanuel Kant's words to explore the challenges facing our society.

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Another quoted Boonaa Mohammed and posed the question: 'If the whole world was blind, how many people would you impress?' These essays looked at everything from the conflicting layers of history, anti-war movements in World War 1, questions of gender and identity and, above all, they showed evidence of the critical thinking and self-reflection that is needed to succeed at third level.

Today, 10 of these students will be offered places to study Law in Trinity, another 10 will be offered places to study History, and more will be offered places on Ancient and Medieval History and Culture. These students may have not made the CAO points total - the Law students were all within 70 points of the final total, the History students were within 150 points - but they did show evidence of academic ability and potential that was not captured by the Leaving Certificate, and they did convince us that they were exactly the kinds of students we want in our classrooms.

The success of the feasibility study to date - a small-scale testing of a holistic admissions route in partnership with the CAO - offers evidence that the Leaving Certificate alone does not need to be the only gateway to college entry.

The admissions route being tested was completely anonymous. There were no interviews. There were no teacher references. At no point did we know the names of the students, or the schools they attended, or even their CAO numbers. Instead we looked at three things equally: Leaving Certificate results; the Relative Performance Rank (RPR) of the student, in other words, how the student performed in the Leaving Certificate compared with everyone else in that school who applied through the CAO; and finally, a short personal statement that was submitted online and given a separate code to the applicant's CAO number.

The personal statements were redacted to remove any information that might identify an applicant and they were then sent to trained readers, specialists in the chosen area, for evaluation. Using these three different modes of evaluation, side-by-side, we followed international best practice in using a comprehensive set of predictors to gain a better overall impression of the applicants and their abilities.

The RPR was invaluable because the context in which the results were achieved is important. Someone who receives 450 points in one school, and is top of their class, might be shown to have greater potential than someone in the bottom of their class with 460 points.

The Feasibility Study Review meeting took place last Wednesday, the day when the results were published, and we invited a number of independent external observers to this meeting, to see for themselves how the process worked.

An internationally respected Irish judge was the independent chair, and we had representatives from the key student bodies (USI and Trinity's own Students' Union), the teaching unions, the representative bodies for the colleges (Irish Universities Association and Institutes of Technology Ireland, respected groups like the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals, the Joint Managerial Body, representing secondary school managers, and business and employer bodies like Ibec.

What we were able to show was that it was possible to develop an admissions route that used the Leaving Certificate results alongside other modes of evaluation, and that the process could be administered in a way that was completely anonymous, robust, consistent and transparent.

Trinity consistently attracts students with very high points, but we are more interested in admitting students with the greatest level of academic ability and potential, suitable for the chosen course, engaged and enthusiastic about learning. We want independent and critical thinkers who will liven up the campus, both inside and outside of the classroom. That may be someone with 550 points, but it may equally be the student with 450 points or 350 points who, for whatever reason, did not do as well in the Leaving Certificate. Every college wants the same thing.

That is why the results of the feasibility study will be shared with the entire sector, because this is not about Trinity getting the best students, but about ensuring every student has the best chance of achieving their potential, wherever they want to study, in the fairest possible system.

Trinity believes that it has a responsibility not just to lead on this issue, but to lead responsibly. By developing this small-scale feasibility study, as befitting an international research university - and proving that the process can work in a robust, consistent, and transparent way - we have helped inform national policy in this critical area.

There is still much work to be done, but if we can move away from the idea of a single points score dominating entry to college, to the detriment of our school leavers and to the detriment of both learning and genuine engagement, then some day we might be able to say that this was the year the points race ended.

Dr Patrick Geoghegan was Dean of Undergraduate Studies at Trinity College Dublin (2011-2014) and is the Project Sponsor of the Admissions Feasibility Study

Irish Independent

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