Note: This article originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle on April 4, 2012
When the national study, “Academic Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,” was published last year, its findings were alarming. Of the national sample of students it surveyed, 45 percent failed to show “any significant improvement in learning” after two years in college. Even after four full years in college, 36 percent still failed to show significant improvement.
At the time, we Texans held out the hope that perhaps these national statistics did not apply to our schools – certainly not to the most prestigious among them.
Alas, our hope has been dashed by a recent Washington Post story targeting the University of Texas at Austin. The Post’s interview of Richard Arum, lead author of “Adrift,” tells Texans that we are not exempt from the national crisis in collegiate learning.
“Adrift” measured student learning with the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), on the basis of which it found that student gains in “critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills (i.e., general collegiate skills) are either exceedingly small or empirically nonexistent for a large proportion of students.”
To its credit, UT has been among the first to measure student learning through the CLA. That is the good news.
The bad news, writes the Post, is that the answer to UT’s question of how much its students are learning is “arguably, not very much.” The Post’s public-records request of UT revealed that in 2011 UT freshmen averaged a score of 1261 on the CLA, which is graded on a scale comparable to that of the SAT. But seniors, the Post reports, “fared little better than freshmen,” scoring 1303.
The Post took UT’s scores to Robert Arum for expert analysis. The “Adrift” author’s conclusion is a bitter pill for us Texans: “The [UT] seniors have spent four years there, and the scores have not gone up that much.”
In the face of such criticism, it is all too human to become defensive. To begin, even the Post concedes that, although seniors improved little over their freshmen scores, “both groups scored very well.” Is it fair, we might ask, to expect much improvement in CLA scores when students at a school like UT already score so high as freshmen?
Not only is it a fair expectation, answer the “Adrift” authors, it is an expectation met in practice by a good number of already-smart students at other equally selective colleges. And here the Post unearthed an even more unsettling statistic: “For learning gains from freshman to senior year, UT ranked in the 23rd percentile among like institutions. In other words, 77 percent of universities with similar students performed better.”
Another time-tested, defensive response would be to blame the test: “Who made the CLA the final authority on student learning?” This objection already has been laid to rest by the related research conducted by Charles Blaich and others at Wabash College. The depressingly small learning gains reported in “Adrift” (.47 standard deviations) on the CLA between freshman and senior years are replicated by Blaich’s research. The students Blaich studied “gained only 0.44 on an alternative test, ACT’s Collegiate Assessment of Academic Proficiency (CAAP).”
This is no time for defensiveness. Rather, UT is to be commended for caring enough about student learning to be one of the first universities to institute annual CLA testing.
Let UT serve as a model for the rest of our state. The various regent boards should follow Austin’s lead and require that all our colleges and universities test their students with the CLA or CAAP. This would be a first but indispensable step toward identifying better ways to support college teaching and learning. For the sake of Texas students, the time to take that step is now.