Jul 022007
Authors: Erik Myers

Some incoming CSU freshmen won’t escape the bubble sheets and No. 2 pencils they thought were abandoned in high school.

This fall, a sample of randomly selected freshmen will be subjected to the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a standardized test and one of the fastest-growing trends in higher education. Some seniors may also be selected to participate.

The voluntary test is designed to measure skills that many deem necessary for success in future careers: critical thinking, analytic reasoning, problem solving, and written communication skills.

Students selected to participate in the test will be tracked throughout their education at CSU.

Roger Benjamin, President of the Council for Aid in Education, the group that created the test, says such skills are becoming endangered in the Information Age, when they are needed more than ever.

“We all need improved skills which allow us to access, use and manipulate information,” Benjamin said. “In general, this test is about benchmarking and stimulating these critical skills.”

The group, Benjamin said, was formed in the late nineties by higher education leaders who shared his concerns about loss of such critical skills. Years were spent developing the test’s essay formats. Trial version of the test emerged in 2002 at Indiana University.

Following a few years of careful polishing, the test became widely available in 2005. According to Benjamin, about 300 higher-ed institutions will be implementing the test next fall, a massive increase when compared to the 175 participating universities from last year.

CSU will join the growing number this fall, spending $28,000 on the four-year longitudinal form of the test, designed to follow college freshmen from the first to final semesters, comparing their results to measure the growth of these skills over a college career.

Alan Lamborn, the vice provost for undergraduate affairs at CSU, said the university plans to use the CLA specifically to examine differences between colleges and programs. The varying scores of students representing different colleges could help administrators determine what causes success and struggles within schools.

“My sense is that if the data produces results that folks aren’t comfortable with, they’re will be an awful lot of positive energy as people all across the program try to figure out what caused it, and how to fix it.” he said.

This could range from curriculum to experiential learning opportunities. Lamborn said he believed schools with low results would be enthusiastic to create a stronger learning experience.

As the tests are not mandatory, the challenge for CSU administrators will be recruiting students who are willing to pile on yet another test to their workload.

Paul Thayer, assistant vice provost for student affairs, said that students would not only be helping the university community by taking the test, but also themselves.

“They’re serving their own interest,” Thayer said. “They can really have an idea of how effective they have become by the end of their senior year. In terms of the kind of skills people need to be successful.”

But some students aren’t thrilled to jump on the standardized test bandwagon.

“I don’t think I’d like to do standardized tests, though it would be a good improvement for the university,” said Stefan Walcher. a senior speech communication major.

Laura Page, a senior biology/pre-med major, said she found the idea of the test as unnecessary, saying a test couldn’t accurately measure a student’s growth.

“I understand that college is about growing, gaining understanding of one’s self, but a test really doesn’t measure that,” she said.

There are many concerns among students and faculty regarding the test, including the possibility that the test will ultimately become a tool for the federal government to base the amount of state funding on test results.

While acknowledging this possibility, Benjamin says the test is more likely to bring about an increase in funding for universities like CSU, as results would raise awareness of what universities needed in order to produce a stronger workforce.

These needs, Benjamin said, include smaller class sizes, more internships and other learning opportunities.

Lamborn shares Rogers hopes that the test will remain exclusively as an opportunity for strengthening a university.

“You get the best and most reliable results if you create an environment where people are encouraged to be open in their self-evaluations,” Lamborn said. “If you turn it into a very regimented punishment/reward system, you’ll undermine the whole thing.”

Staff writer Erik Myers can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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