At the end of this academic year, graduating seniors from colleges across the country will have the option to sit for a test that could have a big impact on their futures.
The Collegiate Learning Assessment Plus is a new standardized test designed to assess college graduates’ abilities in several areas, including critical thinking, problem solving, quantitative reasoning and writing. Developed by the New York-based Council for Aid to Education, the CLA+ has been marketed as a way to gauge a recent graduate’s skills beyond college credentials and grades.
In a perfect world, a test like the CLA+ could prove highly beneficial for students and colleges across the country. President Barack Obama recently called for the creation of a system that would rank colleges based on their affordability, graduation rates, graduate debt and earnings to then use that information to determine the distribution of federal aid. A test like the CLA+ may be able to assess the ability of universities’ to enrich and prepare their students.
The test also has the potential to level the playing field by allowing competent students from smaller colleges to compete with those attending big-name universities. A leveling effect of this sort would reduce employers’ need to rely on imperfect measures of an applicant’s quality, such as his or her GPA or the rank of the university he or she attended. Moreover, if students felt like the test accurately measured the skills they acquired in college, they might feel liberated to pursue the course of study they are passionate about but fits into no clear vocational path. The Graduate Record Examinations already uses this concept for graduate school admissions with varying degrees of success.
Although the test aims to accomplish important and laudable goals, it has the potential to fail or further limit our increasingly narrow conception of what a college education ought to be.
Due to the steady rise of GPAs and shifting class ranking systems, employers are looking for new benchmarks that can signal a student’s capacity to succeed in the workplace, and many companies already use tests designed to assess the skill level of applicants as certain professional tasks. A standardized test designed to measure employability, however, turns the invigorating personal journey offered by a liberal arts education into a narrow vocational path.
We also lack confidence in the test’s ability to actually assess skills like critical thinking. The CLA+ is similar to most other standardized tests in that it attempts to reduce a wide variety of intellectual skills to a limited set of cognitive tasks. This reductive approach not only excludes a broad and diverse range of intellectual capabilities from the assessment, but it also fuels the same competitive culture that has created tutoring centers, cheating scandals and achievement gaps in SAT scores.
The test could also prove destructive for an already fragile collegiate education system. Between the decline in prominence of the humanities, rampant grade inflation and growing pre-professional programs, higher education’s worth—both instrumental and intrinsic—is now in question. The CLA+, by encouraging students and administrators to view the value of their education merely in terms of employability, could very well knock down the house of cards.