Students scoring low on standardized test? No problem, says U. of Texas, which has adopted this ‘fix’

Students scoring low on standardized test? No problem, says U. of Texas, which has adopted this ‘fix’

If the mountain won’t come to Muhammad … Muhammad will ignore the mountain. That is the message reflected in a decision by the powers that be at the University of Texas. After years of students posting poor scores, UT has pulled out of the Collegiate Learning Assessment, which measures student academic progress.

“The decision was made effective this fall semester,” UT system spokeswoman Karen Adler told She called the move a “cost-saving measure,” noting the system spent $92,000 a year to participate in the CLA program.

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

UT was an early adopter of the assessment program, which measures the critical thinking, complex reasoning, and computational and writing skills of freshmen, and retests those students in their senior year.

Recent results showed UT students scoring in the lowest quartile (23rd percentile) in comparison with peer institutions. The average UT freshmen score of 1261 climbed only slightly to 1303 by their senior year.

Richard Arum, lead author of the landmark 2011 study, “Academically Adrift,” summed up the situation: “[Students] have spent four years there, and the scores have not gone up that much.”

The Council for Aid to Education, which runs the Collegiate Learning Assessment, said more schools are joining the program. Some 200 U.S. universities and colleges participate, with a growing number overseas.

“We wish [UT] the best,” CEO Roger Benjamin said from New York. “It’s great they are attempting to do something internally to develop their own assessments.” But Benjamin cautioned:

It is incumbent to be corroborating any new assessment with other appropriate standardized tests to be reliable and valid. This is a performance-based assessment that goes beyond multiple choice.

Tom Lindsay, director of the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, suggested that some of the toughest work may involve the disciplines of education, social work, communications and business. Students in these four subject areas scored lowest nationally on the CLA. UT did not publicly rank its majors.

Lindsay noted performance problems are not unique to Texas’ flagship university in Austin or its sister campuses.

“‘Academically Adrift’ administered the [CLA] to students across the country and found that 36 percent show either ‘exceedingly small or empirically nonexistent’ gains in general collegiate skills after four full years in college,” he reported. “Members of the UT community must commence a profound self-examination aimed at answering why its performance is lagging and how it might be improved.”

Mark Pulliam, a UT grad and attorney in Austin, said his alma mater’s “embrace of leftist fads” doesn’t promote academic rigor.

“In recent years, UT-Austin has insisted on using race-conscious ‘holistic’ admissions over and above the neutral ‘Top 10 Percent’ rule that grants admission to the top graduates of every Texas high school,” he wrote.

Additionally, Pulliam cited the university’s creation of a degree program in “African and African Diaspora Studies,” a major that, according to the AADS webpage, joins “UT faculty, staff and students in conversations about race, gender, sexuality, class and the concept of global Blackness.”

Pulliam also noted that while axing the CLA exam to save money, UT established a Division of Diversity and Community Engagement, with 42 employees, to oversee a “Social Justice Institute” and “Gender and Sexuality Center.” A “Campus Climate Response Team” was assembled to investigate alleged bias incidents, such as fraternity parties with derogatory or offensive themes.

Lindsay says he looks forward to seeing the learning exam being developed by the UT system. “I hope it includes all schools, and that they all use the same test so we can compare apples to apples,” he said.

A bill at the 2013 Texas Legislature would have required every state university to administer the CLA and make the results public. The measure by Sen. Brian Birdwell (R) never got a hearing. Birdwell no longer serves on the Higher Education Committee.

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Kenric Ward

Kenric Ward

Kenric Ward is a national correspondent and writes for the Texas Bureau of Formerly a reporter and editor at two Pulitzer Prize-winning newspapers, Kenric has won dozens of state and national news awards for investigative articles. His most recent book is “Saints in Babylon: Mormons and Las Vegas.”


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