Assessing Learning: The Chronicle looks at the CLA

September 20, 2010

Yesterday the Chronicle of Higher Education posted a major story on the Collegiate Learning Assessment. It’s a useful review of the state of play of the CLA.

Earlham has been a user of the CLA since it was launched.  You can find our results on our website.  And I’m a member of the Board of Directors of the Council for Aid to Education, which produces and oversees the CLA, so I’ve long ago declared my belief that the CLA is one valid and reliable measure of student learning.

As the article notes, it is unusual among student learning measures in that it is “a direct measure of skills.” Moreover, it is not a multiple choice test, but rather an exercise in which students are given a great deal of material to digest (reports, graphs) and asked to perform a task such as summarizing whether the information supports a particular conclusion.

The occasion for the Chronicle article appears to be the news that the College Portrait will begin making CLA scores publicly available beginning in 2012.  The College Portrait is the website of the Voluntary System of Accountability, the VSA being a joint project of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) and
the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU). Of course some colleges and universities (like Earlham) already make their CLA scores public.

The article airs some of the criticisms that have been levelled against the CLA:  will students give it their best effort if it is not a high stakes test, one that affects their own future?  Are we really sure we know what it measures?  Etc.  But there’s no getting around this:  there is no better instrument available toeday for measuring what and whether students are learning in college.  Could we design a yet better measure?  I am sure we can, but I am also sure the CLA has laid the groundwork for that next, better instrument.

The Chronicle article refers to a study by two sociologists, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, in which 24 colleges administered the CLA to students in both their first and fourth semesters in college.  The study revealed a clear pattern:  “Student’s CLA scores improved if they took courses that required a substantial amount of reading and writing.”

That’s a strong prima facie case for the CLA.


About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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