Really? Another Standardized Test for College Graduates? Really!

By Dr. Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute

Last month, Time Magazine and Minnesota Public Radio both interviewed me about the use of the Collegiate Learning Assessment PLUS (CLA+) as a measure of “workforce readiness.” For the uninitiated, the CLA+ is a reuse of the “College Learning Assessment,” created by Rand Corporation with support of several large philanthropies back in the 2000s. I wrote about the CLA in the Swail Letter back on November 18, 2011.

In short, I have never agreed with the premise that a singular test could truly measure what a student—any student—learned while in college. It’s like that Robert Fulghum poem that many of us have had on our walls at one time: “All I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” How an organization, let alone a school of researchers, could wither four years of liberal arts, scientific, or other four-year postsecondary education into a number is a little beyond me. It’s one thing to use the SAT or ACT to give an indicator of college readiness (and we know that the correlation is still limited past the first year of college), but something completely else to try and do the same thing to gauge what a student learns in 1,800-plus hours of holistic instruction.

Now the Council for Aid to Education (CAE), the mothership for the CLA+, wants to expand the CLA empire and start charging students and universities to take yet another test at $35 a pop.

Here is what I said to Time Magazine:

“The idea of the CLA+ is to measure learning at various institutions and compare them. I don’t think that’s technically possible with such a diverse system of higher education. That’s based on the fact that all the curriculums are different, textbooks are different, and you’re expecting to get some measure of—in a very generic way across all ­curriculums—how someone learns in one institution compared to another. All institutions are different, and all of their students are different.”

On a certain level, most of us would be interested in knowing what people learn in college. That’s not at issue here. The question is how we get at that type of information in an equitable and most certainly empirical manner that has relevancy and meaning. The CLA, nor the CLA+, fails to meet any of those criteria.

I see the CLA+ quite simply: a cash grab.

The idea, of course, is that students of the future will have to put their “voluntary” CLA+ score on their resumes so that employers will have something to further filter their applicants. Employers do this all the time via college degrees, GPAs, the colleges attended, and, of course, references.

In reality, a CLA+ number will do but one thing: mirror the SAT score that students did in 11th or 12th grade. The researchers behind the CLA acknowledge the high correlation between the SAT and CLA (0.88) in their own 2007 research paper.* So why create another test that won’t tell us that much about students or their higher education? There are better ways to test outcomes. And the other outcomes is that if colleges take the CLA+ seriously, it will cease to be voluntary for any job-seeking applicant.

There are better ways to determine the efficacy of one’s education.

For the professions, they use exit examinations for licensure and certification. Law, accounting, medicine, and nursing, for instance, all have formidable end-of-program assessments in order to be validated by the profession. Chartered Accountants (CAs) in Canada (like US CPAs), for instance, must take three consecutive days of exams which feature 4-5 hour business and accounting simulations. If they don’t pass, they don’t practice. If they don’t pass in three tries, they can never get the CA designation (ouch). These same professions similarly test students coming in to their programs via vehicles such as the GMAT, LSAT, and MCAT. But they don’t use these tests for outcome measures. Rather, they focus on much more critical and voluminous examinations such as the CA example above.

For those studies that fall underneath the professions, such as BA degrees and otherwise, they are far too broad to subject to one unique test. We have to rely, to a large degree, on our accreditation system. If we fail to believe whether students are learning in school, then our accreditation mechanism must surely be failing, too. Personally, I think accreditation has become more of an art of documentation rather than serious intrinsic assessment. But at what point do we value a degree for being a degree? The CLA+ doesn’t assist us in this manner, and nor was it designed to.

If I am an employer, at least a very thoughtful employer, I don’t want the CLA+. I want to know what each applicant can do. What skill sets do they possess? When they walk in my door what will they be able to do and what will I have to train them to do. It may be nice to have an indicator of “critical thinking,” but I know a lot of “critical thinkers” who are, quite simply, horrible people to be around. Heck, I may be one of them! So those aspects can be interesting, but they tell me squat about what I’m getting.

So if we really want to find what students know, let’s move more of our course work to competency-based educational units. Then we know if Johnny can spell, add, and think. We won’t have a number: we’ll have solid evidence. Perhaps “badges” aren’t a bad idea. Just like I can evaluate a Boy Scout by the badges sewed to his uniform, I can do the same with a graduate (sans the uniform, of course).

In the end, it comes down to this: how many times throughout not just the educational but the career continuum do we have to shove tests that historically are proven to be inequitable by various subgroups, including SES, income, gender, and race/ethnicity, down the throats of our youth to illustrate what has been illustrated repeatedly? To what end? Do we need a five-year post-graduate test to see if we were right? We could make more money off that, to be sure. We would at least know if employees were retaining their prior learning.

Of course, we wouldn’t think of doing that, and we shouldn’t think of doing the CLA+, because there comes a time when that type of testing becomes not only irrelevant but an anachronism—out of time; out of place. With the eclipsing of a personal era of learning and development, we gain other attributes and knowledge that supercede our prior learning. The same type of test does not measure this new learning. It will not measure how worthwhile someone is, nor does it measure their efficacy or motivation. It simply shows that they can complete—and pay for—another standardized measure.

I have other ethical issues with the CLA+, but for now, enough is enough.

*See Table 2 in: Klein, S., Benjamin, R., Shavelson, R., Bolus, R. (2007). The Collegiate Learning Assessment: Facts and Fantasies. Evaluation Review. 31 (5), 415-439. Sage Publications.

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