For over half a century, academically inclined students in Britain or other countries who hoped to study at British universities spent their final two years at school studying for A-levels, widely regarded as the gold standard of British education. These single-subject tests are generally considered more rigorous than the French baccalaureate and roughly comparable to the Advanced Placement exams in the United States.
Originally offered only in traditional academic subjects like English language and literature, mathematics, foreign languages and the sciences, in recent years the range has broadened to include media studies, health and social care, business studies, and travel and tourism. The grading ranges from A* and A down to E, and results are announced in early August.
Typically, a student will take three or four A-levels, which are administered in May and June of a student’s senior year. Since students currently submit university applications between September and January of their senior year — before they even take their A-levels — most British universities admit candidates with conditional offers, based on the A-level grades students are predicted to get by their teachers. For example, a student hoping to study medicine at Bristol, which last year admitted only 216 candidates out of over 3,100 applications, would need predicted grades of at least 2 A’s (including an A in chemistry) and one B.
However, according to the University & Colleges Admissions Service, or UCAS, the private organization that manages university applications in Britain, A-level predictions are only accurate about 45 percent of the time. Students who fail to make their predicted grades face a last-minute scramble for university places and often end up in courses based on the availability of places rather than their own interests or aptitudes. Critics of the system also argue that teenagers from low-income homes often do not believe themselves capable of being admitted to the best universities; by the time they receive the grades that might have prompted them to aim higher, it is too late.
Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of UCAS, said at a meeting of university heads in London last week, according to news reports, that starting in 2016 students should wait to receive their actual A-level grades before applying to universities. Under one set of proposals, students would take their exams before what is now the Easter break, which would mean a five-month summer vacation. Results would be available in July, with applications due in August.
So, the SAT was envisioned as a national test of aptitude that couldn't be studied for.
It's a big national news story this week that seven students at a fancy high school in Long Island were caught paying a college student $1500-$2500 to take their SATs for them, but that's a bit of a man bites dog story. The SAT really does have better security than many GPA related activities.