American colleges have been celebrated as the best in the world. But in fact, they have been getting worse – and something must be done about it.
The greatest value of a college education is in enhancing a student’s command of critical thinking and analytical reasoning. The educated person can think. Among other things, she can evaluate arguments from politicians, pundits, salespeople, business associates and others. She may not know whether a particular claim is correct, but she has a meaningful capacity to gauge whether a claim makes sense and to figure out how to investigate it.
For decades, researchers have been measuring how much college enhances these skills. A standard yardstick has been Collegiate Learning Assessment, or as it is known in its current iteration, the CLA+. That test is designed to measure critical thinking, analytical reasoning, problem-solving, and writing. For decades, it has been given to undergraduate students at the beginning of their freshman year and at the end of their sophomore year to see how much their analytic skills have improved.
‘Barely Noticeable Impact’
The CLA+ is an open-ended test; students are given performance and writing tasks, not multiple-choice questions. In one section of the test, students are asked to read a set of documents and write a memorandum presenting their conclusions about questions relating to the material. For example, students may be told they are working for a city mayor who plans to combat rising crime by increasing the number of city police officers. The mayor is running for reelection against a candidate who advocates spending available resources on a drug education program for addicts instead of on more police. Students are asked to read a set of newspaper articles, statistics, and research briefs about crime and drug addiction and then write a memorandum for the mayor that evaluates the validity of both the opponent’s proposal the opponent’s criticisms of the mayor’s plan. The CLA+ does not test general knowledge. Its designers claim that the only way to successfully prepare students for the test is to teach how “to think critically, reason analytically, solve problems, and communicate clearly.”
In one study, researchers administered the CLA in 2005 and again in 2007 to 2,322 students at 24 colleges that varied in admissions selectivity and other factors. Students increased their CLA scores by the equivalent of only seven percentile points over their first two years of college. Thus, on average, students who entered college at the 50thpercentile on the CLA scored at the 57th percentile near the end of their sophomore year. That is considered anemic progress. As the researchers put it, the first two years of college today “have a barely noticeable impact on students’ skills in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing.” By contrast, students in the 1980s increased their performance by the equivalent of 34 percentile points – rising from the 50th to the 84thpercentile. Other data confirm those findings
Why Have Colleges Gotten Worse?
Researchers suspect that the principal reason is that colleges have become less rigorous. Colleges more readily tolerate students doing little work, and more readily give good grades for mediocre performance. In the 1960s, students studied, on average, more than 24 hours per week outside of class. Even that is rather low. Undergraduates should be studying at least two hours outside of class for each hour of class. That would mean that for the average load of fifteen hours of class time they should be spending at least 30 hours on homework. But students today study only twelve hours per week on average. More than a third of students report studying less than five hours per week.
Moreover, 20% of students say they frequently go to class unprepared. Yet the average GPA in colleges today is 3.2. According to one recent study, 43% of all grades awarded in American colleges today are A’s. Meanwhile, the percentage of C’s has declined from 35% decades ago to 15% today. Grades and GPAs have become almost entirely meaningless.
Researchers also believe that a factor with a great impact on critical thinking skills is whether students take classes from instructors with high expectations. They define “high expectations” as assigning more than 40 pages of reading per week or more than 20 pages of writing per semester. Half of the students who took the CLA in their sophomore year reported that in the preceding semester they did not take a single class that required more than 20 pages of writing, and a third did not take a course requiring more than 40 pages of reading per week. Researchers observed: “If students are not being asked by their professors to read and write on a regular basis in their coursework, it is hard to imagine how they will improve their capacity to master performance tasks – such as the CLA – that involve critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing.”
After controlling for many differences, including the selectivity of the college attended, students who reported they had taken high-expectation courses scored 27 points higher on the CLA than did students who had not taken such courses.
Do Away with Letter Grades
What should be done? I have three proposals. First, colleges should designate high-expectation courses in their catalogs and on student transcripts so that graduate schools and employers can see how many of such courses applicants have taken. As someone who often sits on my law school’s admissions committee, I know we would find this information extremely useful. It would indicate both how intellectually ambitious an applicant is and how well his studies prepared him for law school and for a career in the law. Making this information publicly available in the college catalog will also encourage colleges to increase the number of their high-expectation offerings. No college – and few instructors or academic departments – would want to be known as a purveyor of low expectations. Colleges must, of course, adopt mechanisms for ensuring that the designations are honest, and those mechanisms should be reviewed by accrediting agencies.
Second, instead of receiving a letter grade in courses student should receive a number designating the quartile of the class in which the student ranked. Students whose performance placed them in the top quartile of the class would receive a 1, students ranking in the second quartile would receive a 2, and so on. This is would be far more meaningful than our current system. It would also end grade inflation; after all, 43% of students could not be awarded the top grade of 1. Instead of GPAs, colleges should employ AQRs – average quartile ranks. For example, a student who ranked in the top quartile in half of her classes and in the second quartile of the other half her classes would have an AQR of 1.5. Colleges might also consider giving grades earned in high expectation courses a boost for AQR purposes, just as some high schools give a mathematical boost to grades earned in AP classes for the purpose of calculating GPAs.
Third, so-called output assessments are all the rage in education today. What could be a better measure than an instrument such as the CLA+? Colleges should require at least a significant cohort of their students to take such a test both on upon entering and again perhaps two years later, and should be making that information publicly available.
Do I think colleges will leap at my proposals? No, I don’t. Colleges will be resistant to adopting AQRs because doing so will make many students and their families unhappy. Letter grades hide a multitude of sins; performance by quartile is brutally transparent. However, graduate schools could pressure undergraduate colleges to provide quartile ranks and AQRs, if not instead of, then at least in addition to, GPAs. And for their own sake in being able to effectively evaluate applicants, graduate schools have good reason to do so. If graduate schools preferred students from programs that provided this information, undergraduate schools would be pressured to comply.
Designating high-expectation courses should be a bit easier. Some instructors will not like it. There may be something of a tacit agreement between some instructors and their students: the instructor demands little and awards high grades; in return, students reward the instructor with high student evaluations. However, colleges and departments that pride themselves on their rigor will see a competitive advantage in designating high expectation courses. Once some begin doing that others will have a hard time not following suit.
Accrediting agencies could require colleges to use a test like the CLA+ to assess their performance. And if U.S. News began using that information in its ranking calculations, colleges would be scrambling to figure out how to perform better.
Carl T. Bogus is Distinguished Research Professor of Law at Roger Williams University School of Law in Rhode Island. He is the author of Buckley: William F. Buckley, Jr. and the Rise of American Conservativism and Why Lawsuits are Good For America: Disciplined Democracy, Big Business, and the Common Law.