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UTexas drops national test measuring what students learn over 4 years of college after dismal scores

After being one of the first institutions of higher education a decade ago to implement the Collegiate Learning Assessment, an exam that measures students’ academic growth after four years of college, the University of Texas at Austin has since dropped the requirement after dismal test scores.

The Washington Post outed the university in 2012 for scoring in the lowest quartile among peer institutions on the assessment, which aims to measure students’ critical thinking skills and writing abilities after four years of college.

The Post’s reporting was inspired by a widely touted “Academically Adrift” study that analyzed the assessment’s scores — finding 36 percent of college students made no significant progress in written communication or reasoning ability between freshman and senior years of college.

Through a freedom of information act request, the Post then obtained UT-Austin’s assessment scores, and reported that “for learning gains from freshman to senior year, UT ranked in the 23rd percentile among like institutions. In other words, 77 percent of universities with similar students performed better.”

This 2015-16 school year, UT-Austin quietly stopped administering the Collegiate Learning Assessment. Mainstream news outlets in Texas appear not to have reported on the decision, an Internet search reveals, but some conservative news outlets picked up on it. BoredinClass.shutterstock

“As student scores lag, UT drops national test,” reported Watchdog.org during the fall semester, when the decision took effect. A campus spokeswoman cited the cost, and added the university would instead develop an in-house assessment.

“Leadership felt we could gather strong data about student success and campus performance in-house through the UT System Office of Strategic Initiatives,” UT system spokeswoman Karen Adler said at the time.

Adler echoed those sentiments this month in an email to The College Fix.

“Previously, the UT System paid for academic campuses to participate in the CLA for $92,000 annually. The decision to no longer fund the CLA is a cost-savings measure and a reflection of our efforts to focus our budget on critical needs,” Adler wrote.

Additionally, Adler noted that the services previously provided by the CLA will now be directed by the UT System Office of Strategic Initiatives itself.

Adler did not respond to The College Fix’s specific inquiry about whether or not the Office of Strategic Initiatives will be able to compare UT students’ scores to those of its peer institutions without using a widely administered test such as the Collegiate Learning Assessment.University of Texas

Some critics of the decision have argued canceling the test has reduced students’ ability to hold their university accountable. Some UT grads have also called into question the administration’s rationale of discontinuing the test to save money.

Mark Pulliam, a graduate of UT law school and former editor of the UT law review, told The College Fix via email that “the stated reason for discontinuing it was the cost — $95,000/year. That is a pittance for a school like UT. My opinion is that UT was embarrassed by the poor showing its students made — bottom quartile.”

UT-Austin is not the only campus in the system to drop the test for various reasons.

Thomas Lindsay, director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Center for Higher Education, told The College Fix that UT-Brownsville, which now has merged with UT-Pan American to form UT-Rio Grande Valley, dropped it because its high percentage of transfer students made the CLA’s measurements of cumulative student learning harder to compare to other schools.

Lindsay has been a proponent of the CLA in the past, writing an op-ed in the Austin-American Statesman in 2013 in support of the accountability it offers parents, employers and other stakeholders.

“A recent Chronicle of Higher Education survey of employers revealed their fear that overemphasizing graduation rates might ‘incentivize’ universities ‘to water down quality to hit their targets.’ In the light of ‘Academically Adrift,’ we need to demonstrate to prospective employers that increased graduation rates have not been purchased at the price of education quality,” he wrote. “Marrying graduation rates with monitoring of student learning through the CLA would help validate our intention to do justice to both.”

Many universities continue to use the CLA and comparable tests such as the Collegiate Assessment of Academic Proficiency.

The Council for Aid to Education, which directs the CLA, has noted that more schools have joined the program (which already has more than 200 participating colleges and universities), rather than left it.

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About the Author
Kate Hardiman -- University of Notre Dame