Nothing to CLAP about.

There is an exam called the College Learning Assessment Plus.[1] The exam measures how much college students gain between the freshman year and the senior year. It assesses communications skills (reading, writing); analytical reasoning; and critical thinking. Thus, it is applicable across disciplines and measures the “transferable skills” that have long been touted as the real value of a college education.

The results of the CLA+ for 2013-2014 give cause for hope and fear.[2] Of Freshmen who took the test, 63 percent scored below the Proficient level and 37 percent scored Proficient or higher. Of Seniors who took the test, 40 percent scored below the Proficient level and 60 percent scored Proficient or higher. Of Freshmen, 31 percent enter college at a Below Basic level, but by the Senior year this share has been reduced to 14 percent. Similarly, 32 percent of Freshmen score in the Basic level, but by the senior year this had been reduced to 26 percent even as 17 percent have moved up from Below Basic to at least Basic.

So, the good news is that colleges take the 37 percent who are already proficient and make them more proficient; and they take 23 percent who are not proficient and raise them to proficiency. So, sixty percent of college students benefit from attending college.[3]

What’s the bad news? Well, 14 percent of seniors graduate with a Below Basic score and another 26 percent graduate with a Basic, but Below Proficient score. That’s 40 percent who come out of college deficient in the intellectual skills assessed by the CLA+ exam. That is a huge wastage of resources. Of late, much attention has focused on graduation rates and time-to-graduation. Here, the United States has lost its world-leading position and has fallen behind some other countries. The results of the CLA+ exam suggest that the problem is actually worse than it appears because 40 percent of college graduates don’t actually function at a BA level.

There’s a part I don’t understand, but which I will report. Test scores fall in a range between 400 and 1600. The average Freshman score is 1039; the average Senior score is 1128. The average improvement is 89 points. If, for the sake of argument, you subtract the 400 points you get for being able to sign your own name, then the Freshmen average score is 639 and the Senior average score is 728. An 89 point increase amounts to just under a 14 percent.

Still, these reports raise several questions. Why do almost two-thirds of Freshmen start college below the level of proficiency for their group? Furthermore, many students do not go on to college at all. This suggests that K-12 education is failing many students. It also suggests that an increasingly remedial function is being forced on colleges. (At the same time, they are being criticized for loading students and parents with debt and for not graduating students in a timely fashion.)

Is a 14 percent average improvement enough to justify the cost of four years of college? Does the 14 percent improvement push students over some undefined threshold between incompetence and competence? If it does, then the money probably is well spent.

It’s just my opinion, but professors are the least-qualified to understand the nature of the problem. Their children grow up with books, pictures on the walls, a variety of kinds of music playing, trips to cultural events rather than Disney World, experiences valued over possessions, and parents who work all the time. So, their children are usually successful in school and in life.

[1] This is abbreviated as CLA+ so that anxious parents will not be overheard asking other parents “So, how did your kid do with the CLAP?”

[2] Douglas Belkin, “Skills Gap Found in College Students,” WSJ, 17-18 January 2015.

[3] Maybe all of them do, without that showing up in the test scores. Maybe they are marginally more attuned to key skills without quite getting out of the bottom category.

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