Foreign Exchange: British Test the SAT

By Vaishali Honawar — October 25, 2005 1 min read

A group of high school seniors in Britain will take the SAT this fall as the country’s government attempts to gauge whether its own, highly criticized college-admissions test needs strengthening.

Under the trial, 50,000 secondary school students in England will take the American college-entrance exam, including its new essay question, and their progress will be tracked over five years as they make their way through college. Results will not be used for admissions decisions for those students.

Chris Whetton, an assistant director of the National Foundation for Educational Research in Berkshire, England, one of the trial’s sponsors, said the goal is to find out whether Britain’s A-level examinations, which now determine college admissions, are biased toward students from wealthier families.

A steady increase in the grades achieved by secondary students taking the A-level exams has led to allegations of grade inflation, and has made the A-levels controversial.

“There is some evidence that the A-level examinations favor people who went to better schools, and that they may contribute to children from lower social classes not having access to better universities,” Mr. Whetton said. While in the United States the SAT has been criticized by some as having a racial and class bias, Mr. Whetton said supporters of the SAT experiment felt confident using the test because it is a “very well researched one.”

The $3 million trial’s sponsors include, besides Mr. Whetton’s group, an educational charity in Britain called the Sutton Trust, which focuses on increasing access to higher education among underrepresented groups, and the British government.

Test materials and scoring for the SAT will be provided by the College Board, said Brian O’Reilly, the executive director of SAT information services for the New York City-based sponsor of the test. He said that in Britain, “the question in many people’s minds is whether [the A-level exams] reward students who can memorize a great deal and regurgitate.”

He added that the SAT tests have “something slightly different—reasoning ability. For example, it does not test whether you know algebra or geometry, but whether you can use that information to solve problems.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 26, 2005 edition of Education Week