CLT test creator surprised by Florida university system embrace

New conservative-focused standardised college admissions exam-maker says it aimed for private-sector customers, and now sees greater potential at public institutions

September 21, 2023
A person filling in a standarised test
Source: iStock

The creator of a new conservative-oriented standardised college admissions exam has expressed surprise over its statewide adoption in Florida, saying the Classic Learning Test was only expected to serve a relatively narrow band of non-traditional US students.

The CLT portrays itself as a pushback against a narrowing of reading comprehension requirements across the US, and its authors largely intended its embrace by homeschoolers and some privately run school operations, rather than traditional public school districts, said the CLT’s chief financial officer, Noah Tyler.

But, Mr Tyler told Times Higher Education, “the move in Florida right now has actually opened us up more into that district education space than we expected to be”.

The CLT, Mr Tyler said, was designed to be similar in many ways to the SAT, the nearly century-old ritual for assessing reading, writing and mathematics skills that colleges and universities have held out as an objective comparative measure of high school students applying to competitive postsecondary institutions.

The chief variation, he said, was the CLT’s emphasis on students reading the classical literature of Western civilisation. It’s a difference that the CLT describes as a matter of maintaining intellectual rigour that it feels the SAT has abandoned – and which some academics and partisans see as signalling a political rejection of modern concepts of racial and social diversity.

That latter perspective was fuelled by in recent months by a dispute in which the SAT’s producer, the College Board, created a new high school-level Advanced Placement course on African American studies, and Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, a potential 2024 Republican presidential candidate, promised to fight it.

The governor’s position appeared to be reflected in this month’s vote by the board of governors of the state’s public university system – most members of which he appointed – to approve the use of the CLT in admissions decisions at Florida’s public colleges and universities.

A lone protest came from the board’s faculty member, Amanda Phalin, an associate instructional professor of management at the University of Florida, who warned the DeSantis appointees that the CLT had not yet produced any evidence that it was comparable to the SAT or its chief competitor, the ACT.

The debate comes as both the SAT and the ACT are suffering years-long declines in popularity, due to the growing recognition that their test scores reflect family wealth and other advantages as much as objective academic ability and potential.

That was a problem that the CLT would only worsen, said Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, a group of about 1,300 institutions focused on the liberal arts.

“This test serves a very narrow group of students who are religiously and classically trained, and it is just another way in which we are exacerbating economic and racial segregation in higher education,” said Dr Pasquerella, a former president of Mount Holyoke College.

Yet even with Florida officially welcoming the CLT, it was not clear it had much hope of wide adoption, said David Hawkins, the chief education and policy officer at the National Association for College Admission Counseling. About 85 per cent of US bachelor’s degree-granting colleges and universities no longer require SAT or ACT scores from their applicants, according to the National Centre for Fair and Open Testing.

“Given the trend in test-optional admission since the pandemic,” Mr Hawkins said, “colleges and universities are not likely to be interested in investing a significant amount of energy into a new standardised admission test.”

Mr Tyler said the CLT did see steady growth ahead, but was wary of making expansive predictions. In its seventh year, he said the CLT had about 250 US universities listing it as an acceptable option for their applicants, and it hoped to see that increase by about 50 campuses a year. But realistically, he added, the CLT’s main target was the approximately 17 per cent of US college applicants who were taught at home or attended a privately operated high school, including publicly funded charter schools.

Florida, Mr Tyler acknowledged, was unusual. “That’s because, I think, Florida has a broader vision for the quality of their public education than most states do,” he said. And Ms DeSantis’ hostility to teaching concepts of racial diversity was not worrisome for the CLT’s reputation, the testing executive said. “I know that he’s made a lot of claims,” Mr Tyler said of the governor. “I've mostly focused on his claims about standardised testing.”

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