“No more teaching to the test!” is the battle cry of the growing anti-testing movement in primary and secondary education in America. But there is one area where we need more tests, not fewer—or rather, more choices of which test to take: college admissions. There, we have a two-party system, consisting of SAT and ACT. In the class of 2015, 1.7 million kids took the SAT, nearly two million the ACT. How many of these kids would have found the college application process less alienating and more authentic (and therefore a better gauge of their talents) if they had had more options from which to choose?
An alternative has been developed. It’s called the Classic Learning Test, a college entrance examination that tests for verbal and quantitative reasoning. I helped develop the project in 2015, because it looked so much more calibrated to the teaching I do in freshman classes than do the other options. The CLT resembles other standardized tests, except that it breaks the area of verbal reasoning (which other tests treat as one) down into four sub-areas: Philosophy/Religion, Natural Science, Literature, and Historical/Founding Documents. Those areas reflect the contents of a classical Christian curriculum. Whereas the SAT and ACT adopt a value-neutral approach, often because of “bias” fears, the CLT selects passages deeply and frankly value-heavy, ones that ask students to grapple with strong and often difficult moral implications.
The project is only a few years old, but 67 colleges have already agreed to accept scores on it instead of SAT and ACT if students submit them. More than 125 high schools across the country currently serve as local testing centers. Students can take the exam at one of the centers, receive their scores in less than a week, and have them sent directly to any of the colleges listed on the test’s web site. Students who have attended schools that assigned great works of Western civilization—or who home-schooled using a Great Books curriculum—will be pleased to find an exam that rewards them for the knowledge they’ve acquired.
The CLT is a project of Classic Learning Initiatives, a company based in Annapolis, MD. With the exam oriented toward Western civilization and theistic as well as secular perspectives, it calls to mind the Culture Wars of the 1980s. In that era, Western Civ, Eurocentrism, and Dead White Males were cast as a hegemony that multiculturalism should rightfully topple.
But this project isn’t about reopening those battles. It is about giving test-takers more freedom of choice and colleges more pathways of admission. When the Culture Wars spread through the humanities, the more thoughtful multiculturalists argued for a richer and more diverse sense of the past. They didn’t want to remove Plato and Shakespeare. They wanted acknowledgment of Zora Neale Hurston alongside them.
This should be the strategy in testing, and it begins by providing another option besides SAT and ACT. More colleges should sign up for the CLT. In fact, we should have organizations develop admissions tests aligned with other high school orientations as well—multicultural curricula, Afrocentric curricula, STEM- and arts-based curricula. Why not a menu of ten college admissions tests?
The result can only help colleges. Allowing students greater flexibility in the admissions process will encourage more of them to apply. Admissions offices are fanatical about building a bigger and better applicant pool, and if adding the CLT delivers another hundred applicants, the all-important selectivity rating goes up. College officials might also learn that certain tests are more useful to them than others, and so make better admissions decisions. The CLT practice exam has a reading passage from St. Augustine, a dense discussion of a theological subject. The ACT practice exam has a passage of contemporary literature by Gloria Naylor, an undemanding and clichéd description of a benevolent urban dweller. If a school’s first-year course work contains lots of “complex texts”—as works such as Supreme Court decisions and Modernist poems are categorized—which passage will have more predictive value?
We leave such questions for admissions officers to answer. Right now, we just have to open the field to new offerings.
Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.