Private-Colleges Group Says a Standardized Test Improves Teaching and Learning

November 14, 2011

The Collegiate Learning Assessment, a standardized test of critical thinking, can be an effective tool for changing teaching and learning in the classroom, says a report released Monday.

In a study coordinated by the Council of Independent Colleges, the test, known as the CLA, was administered to about 7,500 students by 47 small liberal-arts institutions between the fall of 2008 and the spring of 2011.The study was supported by the Teagle Foundation, and the particpating colleges were all members of the council.

While the students' actual results on the test have not been made public, council officials said the students produced CLA scores that met or exceeded expectations.

The larger goal of the study, as recounted in the report, "Catalyst for Change," was to create a "culture of assessment" on these campuses, including finding more sophisticated ways to measure student learning, and sharing effective teaching strategies.

That goal succeeded, said the council and the foundation, which used the report to "declare victory," as the study has come to an end. Most of the colleges will continue using the CLA on their own, according to the council.

The Collegiate Learning Assessment, sponsored by the Council for Aid to Education, is one of several tests in use by colleges in response to public demands for measures of student learning. Others include the Collegiate Assessment of Academic Proficiency, from ACT Inc., and the Measure of Academic Proficiency and Progress, offered by the Educational Testing Service.

The colleges in the council's study used the CLA to spark changes in teaching and learning, the report says.

In response to their institutions' CLA scores, several campuses started workshops on the pedagogy of writing and critical thinking. Others recognized weaknesses in their curriculum that were not as readily apparent before the test.

Faculty members also brought the CLA into the classroom, using the kinds of open-ended questions with no clear answers that are featured on the test as models for teaching critical thinking. These questions, called "performance tasks" on the CLA, might ask respondents to sort through news stories, ambiguous data, and a series of contradictory memos to write an essay recommending a course of action for a business where the solution could be many different paths.

Once faculty members got a closer look at the CLA, they saw that it could be a good measure of student learning, said Harold V. Hartley III, senior vice president of the council. "This is a practical way of measuring learning," he said. "It's a test worth teaching to."

Supporters of the test also say it measures the kind of critical thinking, problem-solving, writing, and analytical-reasoning skills that students are likely to need in the real world.

But skeptics say the test is too far removed from the content that students have to learn in college. And they question whether the results are truly reliable, since students never receive their scores and have little motivation to do well.

The number of students sampled at each of the colleges participating in the council's study is also small, which means scores can vary widely based on a few results.

Despite those concerns, the report argues that self-generated efforts to adopt tests like the CLA offer a better way for colleges to respond to calls for accountability, as compared with mandates from the outside, like the measures that have been put in place at the primary and secondary levels.

If the CLA had been imposed "by external fiat," the report says, the colleges involved might have experimented and changed less.