College Admissions Tests Hinder Meaningful Education — But They Don’t Have To

College Admissions Tests Hinder Meaningful Education — But They Don’t Have To
AP Photo/Seth Perlman, File

As many college applications for Fall 2020 admissions go live, high school seniors across the country are putting the final touches on their essays and resumes, gathering their letters of recommendation—and signing up for college prep tests. For years, taking the ACT or SAT has been a fact of life if you wanted to go to college. But preparing for these tests has become an extreme source of anxiety for students. Is it worth it? 

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Probably not. These tests aren’t just needlessly stressful to study for, they’ve also prompted the rise of a massive test preparation and private college consulting industry—one that has become quite the news item as it spirals further into corruption. Worst of all, in many states, preparing for the SAT and ACT has seemingly become the beginning and end of modern educational standards. 

And they’re bad tests.

Since college preparedness exams became standard, education has become woefully uninspired. Students graduate with the basics of reading and writing under their belt but have engaged little with some of the most crucial aspects of education. Students read too little of the conversations and works that have informed some of the most impactful intellectual and social developments in history. 

That’s because most states now abide by Common Core, a set of K-12 educational standards in math and English incentivized by federal grants. It’s a boxed-in method of teaching that requires teachers, by 8th grade, to prioritize functional texts in exposition over works of literature. By the twelfth grade, 70 percent of texts read in English classes must be informational in nature. So, then, the literary works that require deep reading and the development of abstract thought fall to the wayside in favor of the simplistic and mundane. This is just one example of Common Core’s overall emphasis of skills training over meaningful content—a system that discourages creativity and hampers student desire to be a life-long learner.

The SAT and Common Core standards have the same pedigree: David Coleman, president of the College Board, re-vamped the SAT in an effort to align the test with Common Core, telling the Institute for Learning that “teachers will teach towards the test. There is no force strong enough on this earth to prevent that.” Of course, these tests, like the curriculum they reflect, facilitate neither genuine academic growth nor the understanding of human virtue. The organization behind the ACT also publicly supported Common Core standards when the initiative began. But this testing/standards relationship really only stunts student learning.

Thankfully, not all college admissions tests are alike—the Classic Learning Test (CLT) is beginning to make waves. Developed in 2015 by Jeremey Tate and led by a board of scholars and educators, the CLT aims to facilitate a return to rigor and value in education, taking its cues from the Western canon—the great books of literature and philosophy fundamental to understanding our world. It tests students on the works of philosophical heavyweights such as Aristotle and Archimedes and the writing of historical figures like Susan B. Anthony and Booker T. Washington. 

And the CLT is finding success. In the years since it arrived on the scene, it has gained acceptance as a valid admissions test—more than 150 schools, like Hillsdale College and NYC’s King’s College, will take it in lieu of the ACT or SAT.  

Of course, that still leaves a lot of schools that are not yet on board with this new kind of test. But the CLT’s mere existence is heartening. At the very least, it shows potential for the education conversation to evolve. The CLT introduces competition and the power of choice to the admissions testing marketplace and offers hope for positive change. 

As Cicero wrote, “the distinctive faculty of man is his eager desire to investigate the truth.” Indeed, the value of education is diminished when educators focus merely on test taking skills or “teaching to the test.” Education isn’t merely a means to a vocational end or a rote process to build basic skills one can measure on a standardized test. It’s a humane act. The test of education, then, should also be humane.

That’s the promise of the CLT—to be a metric for education that actually promotes a robust and appropriately unbridled learning experience.

After all, the next generation of our students deserve more than days spent completing neatly drawn and tedious objectives. They need to grapple with the tough, perennial issues of human existence, and become better for it. If standardized tests are to be the measure of one’s education, we need an infinitely better standard than the miserable one that the SAT and ACT have proven to be.

Correction: An earlier version of this article reported that 40 schools accept the CLT as an admissions test. In fact, more than 150 schools currently accept the CLT.

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