Post-graduate test purports to measure thinking skills

Students work together
Students in the University of Minnesota's active learning classrooms sit in small groups at round tables.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

A critic of a new post-college test said Monday that the so-called "CLA Plus" will be no different from other standardized tests: People from privileged backgrounds will do better than others.

"Without one person taking the test, I can tell you exactly what's going to happen," said Watson Scott Swail, head of a think tank that focuses on educational policy. "The people who have come from more affluent backgrounds are going to get toward 1600, and people with less, with college degrees, will get less. That's what will happen."

"I don't see the utility of this," Swail said on The Daily Circuit. "It's putting another barrier between the student and the workforce."

An executive at the nonprofit that developed the CLA Plus said the test would be a valuable tool for employers who are trying to differentiate among applicants. She emphasized that the CLA Plus attempts to measure critical thinking skills.

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"We're not a content assessment," said Doris Zahner, director of test development at the Council for Aid to Education. "We're not assessing college graduates' knowledge or abilities in math or reading or biology or engineering. This is an assessment that is above any specific major that a student has through their college education.

"Employers now are looking for employees who have these types of skills. We assume that somebody graduation with a chemistry degree or an English degree has knowledge in their majors. But what employers don't know is whether these students coming out of college are able to do the types of things that are necessary in the workforce. Like, for example, integrating multiple pieces of information, crafting a memo, things that aren't necessarily seen in a college transcript."

Zahner cautioned that CLA Plus will be entirely voluntary, and that anyone with a low score need not put it on a resume.

"This can only help you differentiate yourself," Zahner said. "Let's say you have three people. They all have 3.7 GPAs, they all graduated with English Lit degrees, and one person shows proficiency in these skills employers are looking for. It's a leg up."

Swail countered that a test that starts out voluntary could soon become compulsory. "If some employers start asking for it, people are going to start to feel that they have to have it on their resume," he said, adding that employers might use the lack of a CLA Plus score to winnow candidates from a crowded field: "It's an easy filter."

Renee, an employer in Sioux Falls, S.D., called to say she would welcome the information provided by such a test, because the most important qualities she looks for "are not things you learn on the job."

"I can give them information, but I can't be there for every scenario," she said. "I can't be there for every situation. You cannot tell them every single thing that's going to happen in a day, or questions they're going to get ... How they think cannot be taught.

"There are three things I'm looking for when I hire: Attitude, work ethic and thought processes, or critical-thinking skills. And none of those things can be taught."

Hundreds of colleges around the United States have signed on to a program that administers the Collegiate Learning Assessment Plus, or CLA Plus.


College exit exams coming to some U.S. colleges
The test is being phased in at a time when U.S. officials are wrestling with the rising cost of a college education. President Barack Obama last week proposed a plan to tackle soaring U.S. education costs with a new system that judges colleges and universities on their financial value and ties those ratings to disbursement of federal aid. (Chicago Tribune)

Are You Ready for the Post-College SAT?
Next spring, seniors at about 200 U.S. colleges will take a new test that could prove more important to their future than final exams: an SAT-like assessment that aims to cut through grade-point averages and judge students' real value to employers.

The test, called the Collegiate Learning Assessment, "provides an objective, benchmarked report card for critical thinking skills," said David Pate, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at St. John Fisher College, a small liberal-arts school near Rochester, N.Y. "The students will be able to use it to go out and market themselves." (Wall Street Journal)