Uni entrance exams: Reproduction of privilege?

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In pushing for meritocracy, we have to be careful that we do not entrench the reproduction of privilege especially in university entrance exams, writes our special correspondent

In a recent blog posting, Lim Kit Siang wrote:

“Furthermore, the Higher Education Minister must ask the Cabinet to end the present fraudulent meritocracy using both STPM and matriculation by having a common university entrance examination. This is the recommendation of the World Bank study on “Malaysia and the Knowledge Economy: Building a World-Class Higher Education System” submitted to the government in 2007.”

The question is: what do we want our higher education system, indeed, our overall education system, to do?

There are, of course, multiple answers to this question, ranging from the employer-oriented “train people for jobs” to the civil society organisation-oriented “promote critical citizenship” and “promote social mobility and equality”.

These are not necessarily mutually exclusive aims, but there are trade-offs. If the principal objective is the latter, then the higher education system will need to be more nuanced in its entrance procedures and broader in its teaching-learning approaches.

Lim and the DAP hopefully do not intend for the higher education system to be the site for the reproduction of privilege. To that end, it is useful to take a look at the United States and the outcomes of one of the common university entrance examinations there, the SATs.

A recent blog post on the New York Times, “SAT Scores and Family Income“, looked at the 2008 scores and their correlation with income.

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The author, Catherine Rampell, showed that the scores, whether reading, writing or mathematics, all correlated very closely with family income, with R^2 of around 0.95.

Such high R^2 are rare in social affairs, as they suggest almost perfect correlation, such that it is valid to ask whether the tests are measuring aptitude or family income.

Of course this does not mean that high scores don’t correlate with aptitude as well. But it does mean that, absent other policies, using test scores as a principal criteria of admissions is to entrench the reproduction of privilege from generation to generation.

What this suggests is the need to compensate for lack of privilege lower down in the education system, all the way to pre-school.

Simultaneously, it also suggests the need to use other objective criteria for admissions to higher education. For instance, it should be possible to use a criteria such as the top 10 per cent in every pre-university class as one of the criteria for admission in combination with entrance examinations, or to provide some weighting for low-family income so as to give opportunities to the low income.

However, if this is done, then the higher education system will have to adjust teaching-learning to take account of differing initial preparedness and, at the same time, make full use of the flexibility already available in time-to-graduation, so that the variance amongst graduates is low.

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