Teschler on Topic
Leland Teschler • Executive Editor
Headlines were made recently when numerous universities announced they would no longer require students applying for admission to take ACT and SAT tests. But there is a lesser-known test, the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA+), that may be a better indicator of academic learning than either of these two tests. CLA+ claims to measure how much an educational institution enhances the critical thinking skills of its students.
One part of the CLA+ requires test-takers to read about a hypothetical situation involving an issue, problem, or conflict, then suggest a solution or recommend a course of action based on the information provided in a document library. (One example question calls for evaluating claims of political candidates and endorsing one of them; another involves deciding whether to continue an ad campaign for a product that seriously injured someone.) The library typically contains six to twelve documents that can be technical reports, data tables, newspaper articles, e-mail, and other every-day materials. Students have 90 minutes to make sense of it all and suggest what to do.
Results of the CLA+ test for 2016-17 showed that college seniors generally did, in fact, do better on the test than did incoming freshman. But the range of improvement from freshmen to seniors varied widely depending on the academic institution. This fact caused the Wall Street Journal to say the test found “students often gain little ability to assess evidence, make cohesive argument(s).” The WSJ also came up with a graph showing the average point difference between freshman and senior CLA+ test takers which ranked educational institutions from highest to lowest.
Several big-name academic institutions didn’t come out looking good in this graph. They were clustered at the end with the least improvement.
Of course, the WSJ asked several institutions about their results. We might speculate that these inquiries may have gotten the institutions involved to wonder more about the critical thinking skills of the reporters asking the question than about those of their own students. In what may well have been a “Well, duh” moment, educators from elite institutions were reported to have explained that the hyper-competitive nature of their admissions policies meant that most of their incoming freshman were already pretty good at critical thinking when they first set foot on campus– and their CLA+ scores were, in fact, relatively high. So, it would stand to reason their CLA+ scores wouldn’t improve much after four years.
The institutions that came out looking great in CLA+ point gains tended to be small schools without a national reputation. New Hampshire’s Plymouth State University was at the top of heap in 2014. We might also speculate the result is understandable given that schools of PSU’s stature probably don’t have many applicants who scored 1,600 on the SAT. I suspect PSU faculty members might say a number of their freshman have nowhere to go but up.
Of course, colleges that no longer require SAT or ACT testing may won’t be able to use test scores to distinguish stand-out applicants from the masses. Time will tell what effect this will have on the caliber of incoming classes. At worst, it might be a good way for an institution to show bigger improvements in student CLA+ scores. DW