by Mike Vogel
Incoming students at Flagler College in St. Augustine this year got a rude awakening if they thought standardized tests were something they left behind with their SAT prep books. The Flagler students all had to sit for something called the CLA+, a test that measures critical thinking, communication, reasoning and analysis. They will take it again as seniors.
Flagler President William T. Abare Jr. says the school is using the test to help it measure “the value added to a student for an education at Flagler College. How have our students grown over the four years?”
Proving the value of an education has become important for colleges as education costs rise and employers complain of graduates ill prepared for the workforce despite lofty GPAs. But while law school grads can be judged by how they do on the Bar exam and nursing grads by the results of the licensing exam, it’s more difficult to measure the thinking skills and educational progress of students in other fields.
Enter the Collegiate Learning Assessment Plus, which was created in 2000 by the Council for Aid to Education, a New York-based spinoff of the Rand Corp. that has done extensive research in education policy. The council created the 90-minute test to help institutions evaluate applicants and entering students, and then measure their progress over time.
In Florida, Flagler, Stetson University in DeLand and Warner University in Lake Wales now use the test. Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach is considering it. Some of those schools have used a version of the test for as many as the last seven years, sampling specific groups of students rather than entire classes.
This year, the exam made a splash in the national press as a new, end-of-college hurdle for students and as a tool that employers could use to judge job applicants.
Abare is skeptical many employers will use it, since it’s not in widespread use or well known. In the meantime, Flagler and the other schools see the test as a tool for internal assessment, though at least some of the schools will provide the results to graduating seniors if they want to use them to impress potential employers.
The push for internal assessment is driven in part by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools accrediting body, which requires institutions to back up their assertions of quality with evidence that students are actually learning.
One difficulty is getting graduating seniors to take the test seriously — some uninterested students rush through in 10 minutes — so that the institutions aren’t wasting their money. At $35 per test and 700 freshmen, Flagler spent $24,500 this fall testing them. “It’s not cheap,” Abare says, calling the outlay “a large amount of money for my kind of institution.” Flagler is discussing ways to get seniors to focus, perhaps by putting the CLA+ grade on transcripts.
Abare says he looks forward to whatever the test results reveal about how his school might improve. Already, he sees an advantage in testing freshmen. The test could identify gaps in an individual student’s profile early and lead to a plan — remedial classes, additional work or other help — to catch the student up with peers. “We’re still cutting our teeth on this,” Abare says.