Students from comprehensive schools are likely to achieve higher class degrees at university than independent and grammar school students with similar A-levels and GCSE results, a major study commissioned by the Sutton Trust and the Government shows. This is one of the main findings from a five year study by the National Foundation for Educational Research tracking 8000 A-level students to investigate whether the US based SAT could be used in university admissions in the UK.

A comprehensive school student with A-level grades BBB for example is likely to perform as well in their university degree as an independent or grammar school student with A-level grades ABB or AAB – ie one to two grades higher. Comprehensive school pupils also performed better than their similarly qualified independent and grammar school counterparts in degrees from the most academically selective universities and across all degree classes, awarded to graduates in 2009.

The final report from the study published today concludes that the SAT results are a poorer predictor of degree results than A-levels or GCSEs, and that the test does not identify academic potential among disadvantaged pupils that might be missed by A-levels.

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust, said: “These findings provide further evidence that universities are right to take into account the educational context of students when deciding whom to admit – alongside other information on their achievements and potential.

“We are obviously disappointed that the SAT does not provide an extra tool in helping to identify academic talent among students from less privileged homes – but this study does at least demonstrate the need for all university admissions tests to be properly evaluated in this way. One issue has been that during the last five years the SAT has become less of an aptitude test and more of an achievement test similar to A-levels.”

The study found that comprehensive school students, who achieve the same level of degree as students from an independent or grammar school (with the same GCSE attainment and other background characteristics), are likely to have an average A level grade that is approximately 0.5 to 0.7 of a grade lower.

These differences emerge for all types of universities, including the most academically selective universities – despite the fact that a greater proportion of grammar and independent school pupils end up at these institutions. The study took into account the fact that some universities demand higher A-level grades for entry than others. The final report focuses on the degree results of 2750 students who graduated in 2009.

The study concludes that the SAT has some power to predict degree outcomes but it does not add any additional information, over and above that provided by GCSEs and A levels (or GCSEs alone), at a significantly useful level.  It finds no evidence that the SAT provides sufficient information to identify students with the potential to benefit from higher education whose ability is not adequately reflected in their A-levels or GCSEs. Meanwhile the SAT was found not to distinguish between the most able university applicants, for example those who get three or more A grades at A level.

Notes to editors

This is the final report of a five-year research study, co-funded by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), the Sutton Trust and the College Board, examining the validity of an aptitude test (the SAT) for use in higher education (HE) admissions.

The study aimed to provide information on:

  • how the SAT could help predict university outcomes together with A Levels
  • whether the SAT could distinguish between the most able students who get straight As at ‘A’ Level
  • if the SAT could help identify students from disadvantaged backgrounds who may have the potential to benefit from higher education

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