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Amy Choate-Nielsen: Post-college test may revolutionize resumes

Published: Thursday, July 30 2015 3:11 p.m. MDT

The Collegiate Learning Assessment is in answer to a growing complaint from employers who are looking for employees with more than a degree. According to a study of this year's employers' hiring priorities, more than 75 percent of employers said they are looking for employees with skills in critical thinking, complex problem-solving and written and oral communication. (Shutterstock) The Collegiate Learning Assessment is in answer to a growing complaint from employers who are looking for employees with more than a degree. According to a study of this year's employers' hiring priorities, more than 75 percent of employers said they are looking for employees with skills in critical thinking, complex problem-solving and written and oral communication. (Shutterstock)

Not so fast, high school seniors, who look so relieved after taking the SAT or ACT.

You may think you just took a standardized test for the last time, since you've already been accepted to college and your degree will land you a job, but times have changed. This fall, colleges and universities are offering a new standardized test, which measures analytic, reasoning and communication skills in an essay format, to students who may feel like the university name on their diploma isn't enough to set themselves apart from their fellow graduates.

The Collegiate Learning Assessment is in answer to a growing complaint from employers who are looking for employees with more than a degree. According to a study of this year's employers' hiring priorities, more than 75 percent of employers said they are looking for employees with skills in critical thinking, complex problem-solving and written and oral communication.

Colleges have long had an interest in testing to know how well their students attain these skills by graduation, but for the last decade, it was purely for internal purposes. Students didn't know their results, and potential employers didn't ask. But now, as the value of a college degree and GPA are increasingly being questioned as a measure of education, students are looking for new ways to prove they are smart.

Now, instead of taking a test to get into college, they may start taking a test to get out.

The CLA+

More than 10 years ago, Roger Benjamin, president of the Council for Aid to Education, a nonprofit organization dedicated to conducting research on higher education and fundraising, and his colleagues had an idea: why not make a test to measure the quality of student learning in higher education? Universities could ascertain what knowledge their students acquired along with their degrees and make changes if their findings were disappointing. Benjamin imagined the results could provide a helpful insight in shaping curriculum and establishing a benchmark to compare universities.

That's how the Collegiate Learning Assessment began in 2002. Since then, more than 700 institutions in the U.S. and abroad have administered the 90-minute test, which is called CLA+, for short, for internal purposes. This fall marks the first time some 200 schools will offer the test to students for their own use.

"Let's put it this way, I think there is room for something like this," Benjamin said. "I think the biggest market for something like this is not in the selective colleges, not in the 'Princetons,' but what about the high-ability students who are graduating from public universities? If the main GPA is 3.3, students don't really have all that much that distinguishes their ability from other students. There are a lot of good students, and I don't think they get a fair shake right now."

Scoring well on a test that displays students' cognitive abilities could be just the thing to give recent graduates an advantage in the job market, Benjamin says.

Employer expectations

Employers looking to hire recent graduates have a growing complaint: their prospective employees don't know how to function in the workplace.

Studies show students are earning higher grades now, but they may be learning less, and employers are starting to notice. According to "Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses," a study that analyzed the results of the CLA+ over a four-year period, 36 percent of students did not "demonstrate any significant improvement in learning." And according to a study of employers' hiring priorities this year by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, more than 75 percent of those surveyed said they want "more emphasis on five key areas, including critical thinking, complex problem-solving, written and oral communication and applied knowledge in real-world settings."

Providing a way for employers to evaluate those skills before beginning the hiring process could be very valuable to corporations, says Stan Inman, director of career services at the University of Utah.

"Employers are looking for any way they can find to make a good hiring decision," Inman says. "It is a big investment in resources of all kinds — money, time, everything else — to hire someone and onboard them and train them. If they make a bad hiring decision, it is so costly."

If graduates can convince employers that they are worth the investment, then students will have a much better chance at landing a job closer to the description and salary they are looking for. Otherwise, they risk joining the ranks of others who have shocked employers with their lack of skills and poor attitude, according to a 2012-2013 report on recruiting trends by the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University.

"College students have an attitude of entitlement that they are owed a job, and it should be at a specific dollar amount, even though they do not have a basis for that dollar amount," the study says. "While they certainly have obtained good educations, it is important for all new hires into any organization … to have patience to learn the new environment."

Shaping the future

As grades shift, the job market fluctuates and employer expectations evolve, Benjamin says he expects education to adjust, too. In fact, that was part of his motivation in cultivating the CLA+ test, but he's surprised to see the beginnings of those changes happen so soon.

"There is a revolution going on now in educational assessment," Benjamin says. "I think we are really going to move beyond the multiple choice tests. I think that is a good thing and I think it is a big deal. The way you test turns out to drive the way you teach."

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