“I think this particular test is a very good, well-designed way to assess critical thinking, but the issue and problem I’m struggling with is that they’re trying to measure value added,” Associate Vice Provost for Programs and Planning Mary Pedersen said.
Cal Poly is currently focusing on enhancing students’ critical thinking skills.
The Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA+) — a performance-based assessment measuring critical thinking, problem solving, analytic reasoning and writing skills — is simply a part of that focus.
In the past, the test has been administered to freshmen and seniors to gauge Cal Poly students’ ability to think critically in comparison to students at different universities around the nation.
This year, Cal Poly is offering students with proficient and advanced mastery levels on the assessment a certified badge for résumé-building websites. Those with top scores will also be invited to participate in a virtual career fair hosted by Brazen Careerist in spring to meet with employers hiring recent college graduates. Other benefits include monetary prizes for top scores, such as $400 for first place and $200 for second place.
But the added benefits are simply a response to the inaccuracy of such test results in recent years, Associate Vice Provost for Programs and Planning Mary Pedersen said.
“I think this particular test is a very good, well-designed way to assess critical thinking, but the issue and problem I’m struggling with is that they’re trying to measure value added,” she said.
“Value added” — a system that measures the improvement of incoming freshmen scores compared to a different group of outgoing senior scores — can be a limitation to Cal Poly, Pedersen said.
“The problem is that our freshmen are so bright and they come in at such a high profile that they’re already scoring in the 90th percentile,” she said. “The issue then becomes, can this test really demonstrate value added? That’s the question that I’m not convinced of and don’t have an answer for … is this a limitation of the test, the testing environment or how we’re doing it?”
One of the key issues with the assessment is the motivation of the students taking the test, she said.
“One issue is that because freshmen are very excited about starting college, they’re very motivated; they take it very seriously,” she said. “But when we assess our seniors, they think there’s no reason to take it seriously, and we have some indirect anecdotal evidence that they actually don’t think it’s serious.”
But with added benefits offered by Cal Poly and employers asking for CLA+ scores, Cal Poly hopes to get a motivated group of seniors to show the value added, she said.
“That’s how campuses are actually measured, in terms of the quality of campus educations,” Pedersen said. “Because we don’t see a value added, it doesn’t make us look great and we don’t want to report that data … Our goal is to try to optimize the testing environment so that our seniors will be motivated to do well.”
The test, free to the first 150 seniors who started Cal Poly as freshmen, tests students on performance tasks and document analysis. For students who wish to take it on their own and aren’t included in the first 150 students, the cost is $35, Administrative Analysis and Specialist for Academic Programs Jessica Carson said.
“They are given a series of documents when taking the test; it’s like a real-life work situation,” she said.
This year, for freshmen, the 90-minute assessment was embedded into Week of Welcome. For seniors, Cal Poly is looking into inviting students to take it this year, Carson said.
To Danielle Hollywood, a wine and viticulture senior working on the marketing campaign for the CLA+, anything students can do to set themselves apart for employers is important.
“A company that has a lot of applicants and a lot of employers may observe students’ GPAs, but it doesn’t mean much anymore,” she said. “Can you communicate well? Do you have critical thinking skills? If you show them you have these qualities and that you took an assessment like this, it’s not going to hurt you at all.”