‘This is the beginning’: Florida university system adopts Classic Learning Test

Female college students Credit Jacob Lund Shutterstock CNA Credit: Jacob Lund/Shutterstock

Prospective college students in Florida who want an alternative to the long-used SAT exams can now submit to a test that offers what its publishers call “foundational critical thinking skills” from a battery of classical subjects.

The State University System of Florida announced earlier this month that it had “voted to accept the Classic Learning Test (CLT) as a path to admission” in the schools that comprise its system.

“The system is pleased to add the CLT to reach a wider variety of students from different educational backgrounds,” the announcement said. “Not intimidated by controversy or critics, our focus is on the success of our students and the State of Florida.”

The CLT was launched in 2015 by Classic Learning Initiatives. The organization says on the test’s website that its exams “evaluate reading, grammar, and mathematics and provide a comprehensive measure of achievement and aptitude.”

The tests “emphasize foundational critical thinking skills and are accessible to students from a variety of educational backgrounds,” offering students what it calls “a more edifying testing experience” that “reflect a holistic education.”

Jeremy Tate, the founder of the test, told CNA in a phone interview that prior to launching the new testing initiative he worked extensively with standardized testing materials, including the SAT, which is published by the nonprofit College Board.

“My background was running an SAT/ACT prep company and working at a Catholic school,” said Tate, who is Catholic himself. “I really saw the influence of the College Board on this school in not-good ways, in some pretty negative ways.” 

“Most of what we did at the school for marketing — to get new students — almost all of it was connected to the College Board,” he said. “We were marketing on average SAT scores, AP (Advanced Placement) scores, on and on.”

The pervasive influence of standardized course material had a profound effect on student choices, Tate said. “So much so that when the Dominican sisters introduced an introductory course to philosophy, so many kids did not want to take it,” he said.

“The No. 1 explanation why: ‘Because it’s not any AP points.’”

The ‘A-ha!’ moment

Tate described that experience as revelatory. “It was this kind of ‘A-ha!’ moment,” he said. “Catholic kids in a Catholic school aren’t going to take philosophy because of the power and influence of the College Board?”

That dispiriting realization spurred Tate to found the CLT. The company offers a variety of testing levels for students incorporating a wide variety of subjects. Tests for third through sixth graders review “classic children’s literature, fables, poetry, historical nonfiction,” while the higher tests for middle schoolers through upper-level high schoolers focus on “verbal reasoning, grammar and writing, and quantitative reasoning.” 

Tate said that, far from merely measuring what students have learned, tests can play a major role in forming what students do learn. 

“​​We typically think of the SAT/PSAT as evaluative tools,” he said. “We argue that that’s true, but they’re also pedagogical tools. They teach.”

“If every kid knew that on the SAT or PSAT that they were going to see Aristotle or Thomas Aquinas, it would have a dramatic effect on the attention those thinkers get in the classroom as well,” he said. “Testing inevitably drives curriculum. What gets tested inevitably gets taught.”

A practice test on the initiative’s website includes material from Plato, Cicero, Thomas Jefferson, the German-Dutch Catholic priest Thomas à Kempis, and onetime U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, among other thinkers and writers.

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After developing the test, the initiative distributed it at select schools in order to start quantifying the material. 

“You can’t have an actual standardized test until you have a ton of data,” Tate said. “We had an initial blueprint of the test and we went to colleges that we thought were missionally aligned and sympathetic. We submitted it to them to add as an additional option.”

Tate was unclear as to the exact details of the test’s acceptance by the Florida university system. “What I’ve been told is that it came directly from Ron DeSantis himself,” he said. “They wanted this to happen.”

For the test’s future, Tate said his team is five years into a 25-year goal “to be more important than the SAT/ACT.” 

“We believe we have better material and better technology,” he said. “I really think this is kind of the beginning of getting there.”

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