University access fear over BMAT entrance test glitch (again)

'Huge spike in concern' reported over test used to select medical, dental, biomedical and veterinary applicants

'Huge spike in concern' reported over test used to select medical, dental, biomedical and veterinary applicants

22 Nov 2021, 5:00

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Some university applicants may be unfairly penalised by an exam body’s handling of repeat IT problems during BioMedical Admissions (BMAT) tests, parents and school leaders have warned.

Bill Watkin, chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, said it was “disappointing” Cambridge Assessment Admissions Testing failed to prevent technical disruption for a second year running.

The test, moved online last year because of Covid, is used by many universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, to help select applicants for medical, dental, biomedical or veterinary courses.

Parents and staff told Schools Week IT glitches had left students “distraught” and even colleagues “heartbroken” when tests were held earlier this month. Some were unable to start or finish, while others reported the two-hour test taking over four hours as it continually froze or logged users out.

CAAT, the university-owned body that runs BMAT, would not say how many schools were affected and why problems occurred, when asked by Schools Week. One school said it was told systems were “unable to cope” with student numbers.

A CAAT spokesperson said it had apologised, but “most” candidates avoided disruption. The Student Room website reported a “huge spike in concern” on its forums, however, and the SFCA and school leaders’ union ASCL reported members contacting them.

Such issues could have been avoided by giving schools back-up paper or downloadable alternatives in advance, Watkin said. “They really should have anticipated this.”

Problems then spiralled beyond IT.

Watkin said worried staff could not get through to CAAT for immediate support.

Schools abandoned tests

Many schools and colleges abandoned tests. Eventually they received emails offering new exam dates. But some received several days’ notice while others received “little if any,” Watkin said, leaving students at a “further disadvantage”. Other students were able to sit tests remotely, albeit monitored.

Four parents also told Schools Week their children face continued uncertainty after being refused resits, as they managed to finish tests. They argue results are not comparable, as IT woes meant enormous stress and inadequate time. One student did not answer every question.

CAAT has said students will receive support, with schools advised to formally request “special consideration”.

But parents voiced anger at receiving no more details or reassurance two weeks on, with results due next week. One said CAAT should have launched a helpline, with another urging a statement from leaders. “There’s been radio silence.”

Mhairi Underwood, student voice head at The Student Room, said limited information “compounded” stress expressed on forums.

Documents on CAAT’s website suggests marks will not be adjusted for disadvantage. Instead, students will receive a “severity” rating, but only “where appropriate”.

Universities will receive these ratings but not information on individuals’ circumstances and will have “discretion” over how – or if – they use them.

CAAT also says it cannot reveal what severity ratings students receive.

Provider accused of ‘washing their hands’ of responsibility

One parent accused CAAT of “washing their hands” of responsibility, and said there was no apparent recourse if universities rejected applicants.

“Our worry is, how will we know if they really pay attention?”

Another feared that medical schools, already over-subscribed before Covid grade inflation, would “unfairly” feel they still had to rely on BMAT scores.

Some also expressed concerns not all parents and schools would be “tenacious and organised” enough to send detailed statements backing each pupil’s case. Candidates themselves may be wary too. “If you want to be a doctor, the last thing you want to say is it was stressful and I panicked,” the parent said.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, which has written to CAAT, warned it appears “very difficult to iron out differing experiences” through special consideration. “The ongoing concern is whether the remedy is sufficient.”

He said students who finished tests lasting “several hours in extremely stressful circumstances” should be offered resits, with the better marks standing.

But a CAAT spokesperson said recognising candidates’ true abilities was its “priority”, adding that it has “deep experience” handling special consideration requests fairly every year. Staff are working closely with universities ensuring applications are “not adversely affected”, they said.

A Medical Schools Council spokesperson also said candidates should be reassured by admission teams’ “wealth of experience” handling special consideration. Applications are treated fairly on a case-by-case basis in line with each university’s admissions process, she added.

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