Tuesday 23 July 2019

Aptitude test violates our policy on fairness and social mobility

MEDICAL faculty applicants who achieved very high points in the Leaving Certificate but failed to obtain admission would seem to have serious cause for grievance.

These students followed the State's curriculum in primary and second level school. They were assessed in the State's examination and were adjudged to have been close to perfection in answering the State's questions. Despite this they are to be denied admission to the state-funded medical faculties.

The reason for their failure to gain admission this year is the introduction of non-curricular Australian HPAT tests for medical faculty admission.

The Department of Education and Science statement in 2007 announcing these tests says that they "measure general and personal skills and abilities not directly assessed in academic examinations".

The HPAT was a two-and-a-half-hour test with 110 questions focused on logical reasoning, problem solving, interpersonal understanding and non-verbal reasoning.


High-point applicants typically with high grades in higher level maths, sciences, languages and humanities can justifiably ask why desired generic skills are not adequately embedded in the schools' curriculum.

No direction was provided by the State or the universities as to how the attributes allegedly assessed by HPAT should be acquired.

The introduction of the tests is all the more questionable given the recommendations of a high-powered American Commission on Undergraduate Admission in 2008. This commission, chaired by the Harvard Dean of Admissions, claimed that universities "are better served by admission examinations linked to high school curricula".

The president of the guidance counsellors in radio interviews claims that HPAT tests "require no preparation". In contrast, the American Commission opposed such tests because affluent students had advantages in accessing preparatory courses.

Already a grind industry has developed -- and will grow -- in this country giving preparatory grinds to fee-paying students.

Non-curricular tests place poorer and rural students at a disadvantage. It is known that medical faculties contain the highest proportions of students from higher socio-economic backgrounds. Non-curricular tests would therefore seem to violate the State's policies on fairness and social mobility.

In Britain in 2008, a report by Universities UK warned that non-curricular tests could place extra financial burdens on would-be students from poorer backgrounds.

The report suggests that such tests could lead "to an undesirable and profitable industry that would provide coaching for those who can afford it". That industry is growing in Ireland.


The statement from the Department of Education announcing these tests stated remarkably that medical applicants "will no longer have to strive for a perfect maximum points" and that students who achieve a threshold 480 points will have "reasonable prospects" of achieving medical faculty entry.

Such 480-point applicants could only achieve entry if many high-point students did poorly in the non-curricular test. It is to be hoped that Leaving Cert students will continue to have the ambition to achieve the highest possible grades.

A further disadvantage of the HPAT introduction is that it distracts attention from the reform and enrichment of the schools' curriculum and assessments.

Dr Sean McDonagh is a former director of the Dundalk Institute of Technology and of the Government's Skills Initiative Unit

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