College seniors who thought their days of taking standardized tests were behind them might have another think coming next spring.
More than 200 schools, including some in the Texas and California state systems, have signed on to offer students the new voluntary Collegiate Learning Assessment Plus (CLA+) test, designed to give employers an objective way to measure entry-level candidates.
Proponents of the CLA+ say the test scores are a better way of measuring student performance and career readiness than Grade Point Averages (GPAs), which have become so inflated they’re no longer as useful to employers as they once were. The average college GPA has risen over the past few decades from 2.3 to 3.2, according to Gallup.
The compromised value of a high GPA has little impact on students from highly selective, well known colleges who are likely to land a job regardless of their GPA. But it has hurt hard-working students at schools without a marquee name, says Robert Benjamin, executive director of the nonprofit Council for Aid to Education, which administers the CLA+.
“This gives able students at those schools an opportunity to show that their skills are the same or better than [those of] their counterparts,” Benjamin says. “It also allows those schools to objectively demonstrate they have quality students.”
And here’s another benefit: The test could be a way for students who take massive open online courses (MOOCs) to compete with those wielding pricey degrees.
CRITICAL SKILLS IN A NEW ECONOMY
The $35, 90-minute, all-essay test measures critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and writing skills. (See a sample problem here.) The tests are graded on a 1600-point scale, and test takers can include their scores on their resume. Employers will be able to verify those scores.
More than half of employers say that most applicants who apply for positions at their companies don’t have the skills and knowledge necessary for advancement, according to a study by the Association of American Colleges and Universities. The study also found that 93 percent of employers said a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than his or her major.
Jim Oddo, vice president of talent acquisition and development for the telephone company Frontier Communications, is not familiar with the CLA+ test, but says hiring managers could use an objective measurement to compare applicants across the country.
“That would be helpful for us,” he says. “A GPA is really only one tool that we consider, but we don’t put a tremendous amount of weight on it. Your success here is more about how well you’re going to fit into our culture. These new assessment tools might be better indicators of future behavior.”
For now, Oddo says the company relies on its internship program and thorough interviewing and vetting to determine whether a new grad might be a good fit. “It’s a challenge because you’re making a commitment and taking a chance on someone who doesn’t have a significant body of experience.”
THE ROI OF A COLLEGE DEGREE
The CLA+ test comes amid mounting questions about the value of college degrees. There’s a growing backlash against skyrocketing tuition costs and student debt, while young college grads face intractably high unemployment rates. The Obama administration has proposed ranking schools based on tuition, student debt, subsequent earnings of graduates, and the percentage of lower-income students who graduate.
“It’s imperative for employers to determine whether a potential hire is ready for the challenges of a dynamic workplace,” says Michael Poliakoff, vice president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. “The CLA+ is designed to do exactly that.”
CLA+ is the only exit exam aimed specifically at college students right now, but experts say this testing market could soon get crowded as other organizations develop initiatives that reflect employers’ demand for objective ways to measure students. Education Testing Services now lets job applicants send their GRE test scores to potential employers; and the ACT currently offers a Career Readiness Certificate, aimed at skilled technical workers.
“Employers are telling us, ‘I’m hiring people who seem to have the right degree, but I don’t know what their true workplace skills are,’” says ACT spokeswoman Katie Wacker. “’I don’t know if they’re going to be able to do the tasks I need them to do.’”
This piece was updated on Sept. 13. 2013.