Call for review into SJTs

by Tim Tonkin

The BMA has called for a review into the handling of online exams following reports of students being denied toilet breaks and tests being abruptly terminated.

Location: UK
Last reviewed: 29 January 2021
29777 computer, male 2

The association’s medical students committee co-chairs Becky Bates and Tinaye Mapako have written to the UKFPO (UK Foundation Programme Office) in response to numerous complaints raised by final-year medical students concerning the SJT (situational judgement test).

In a letter to UKFPO co-chairs Professor Tom Lawson and Mike Masding, they express their fears that the way in which some SJTs have been conducted are likely to have had an unfair effect on students, particularly those with disabilities or requiring reasonable adjustments.

Calling for a review of the online proctoring policy used for the exams, they warn that ‘the treatment for some medical students undergoing the exam has been unfair, unacceptable, and in some cases inhuman’.

They said: ‘We are writing to you on behalf of the BMA MSC to raise our genuine concerns with the delivery of the SJT through remote proctoring and the impact this is having on some final year medical students.

‘We have [also] been contacted directly by several distressed students informing us of instances where they have been refused permission to use the bathroom during their exam or where it was terminated immediately, without warning, due to the presence of blank sheets of paper seen by the invigilator prior to the commencement of the test – potentially resulting in students having to defer for another year to take the exam.’

They added: ‘These worrying reports indicate a lack of adjustment being made to the proctoring policy and suggest an exam delivery process which may impact disabled students disproportionately.’

Many medical students have taken to social media to express their dismay at the online invigilation process.

‘I sat my SJT online,’ stated one anonymous account. 

‘It was terminated part way through after my online invigilator saw me using blank paper to work through a question. There was no clear guidance that blank paper was not allowed.’

‘I was disqualified because my parents’ landline phone rang and I rejected the call,’ medical student Victoria Leach stated on Twitter. 

‘This was classed as using a phone and they terminated my exam.’

Equalities breach

Based on clinical scenarios, the SJT is a computer-based assessment and is used to test the essential competences of medical students looking to apply to the UK Foundation Programme.

Scoring in the exam helps to determine whether a student will be selected to work in their preferred location during their foundation years. 

Previously administered by the Medical Schools Council, the SJT exam process is now overseen by the US firm Pearson Vue. 

This is the second occasion in which the BMA has been compelled to speak out and raise concerns about the handling and processes of the SJT exams. 

In December the association intervened following reports that dozens of students were not receiving the reasonable adjustments to their exams that they required, warning the UKFPO that failure to grant such adjustments could be a breach of equalities legislation.

Owing to the social distancing restrictions imposed by COVID-19, the numbers of students having to take the SJT assessments online has been greater than normal.

‘Inhuman’ treatment

In their letter, the MSC chairs call on the UKFPO to work with the students affected in arranging resits of the exam, and for assurances that concerns raised about remote proctoring are properly addressed.

They further ask that the UKFPO evaluates test-score data from applicants who have already taken the SJT, to identify and assist those candidates with low or incomplete scores who may have faced difficulties during their test.

They said: ‘The distressing online proctoring practices reported indicate that the treatment for some medical students undergoing the exam has been unfair, unacceptable, and in some cases inhuman. 

‘These experiences will add greater levels of stress, anxiety and in many cases uncertainty for students who are desperate to enter the foundation programme later this year, contribute to the national effort to fight the pandemic, and offer urgently needed patient care.’

In response to the experiences reported by students, UKFPO co-chair and lead HEE Foundation School director Mike Masding said that the small number of students who had been disqualified would be supported.

He said: ‘Out of 8,000 UKFPO applicants a small number (less than 0.25% of the Cohort) were disqualified by the testing invigilator for prohibited actions. We have worked with individual applicants whose tests were discontinued and where appropriate offered the option to re-book.

‘All applicants were given guidance in advance of the test but we will continue to work with partners to review the process and ensure all applicants are fully supported.’

‘Fair’ design

A spokesperson for Pearson Vue said that all necessary steps had been taken to make the exam process fair to everyone, adding that all UKFP candidates were ‘strongly advised’ to read through online resources relating to the exam in the week before their test.

They said: ‘To safeguard the integrity of our services and the content of our clients' exams, we actively monitor against strict security policies, both in our test centres and during online-proctored exams [delivered by OnVUE].

‘The SJT is designed to be fair to all candidates and as the UKFP’s testing partner, Pearson VUE takes all necessary steps to ensure that all candidates have a consistent experience but is allowed to stop a candidate’s exam if our rules, policies and procedures aren't followed. 

‘We offer all our clients the ability to have scheduled or “pause the clock” type breaks. It is the decision of the client to decide whether to use this option with their own exam programmes.’