In the absence of any well-recognized measure of student learning at the collegiate level, one of the most popular substitutes is the Collegiate Learning Assessment. CLA is a computer administered standardized test that consists of open-ended (not multiple-choice) questions. CLA is supposed to measure not what a student knows but the college or university’s contribution to how much students learn. So far so good.

Except maybe the test doesn’t really work so well. According to an article by David Glenn in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the trouble is that those open-ended questions take some effort to answer. And if students don’t want to take much time to answer the questions, they won’t do as well on the test, no matter how impressive their school’s contributions to student learning. As Glenn explains:

Braden Hosch… scrutinized the performance of students on the CLA at his institution over a three-year period and discovered something that made him queasy: Students’ performance on the test was strongly correlated with how long they spent taking it.

…There have long been concerns about just how motivated students are to perform well on the CLA. Why sit there and carefully craft an essay, after all, if there is no particular reward or punishment for your performance?

Hosch, the director of institutional research and assessment at Central Connecticut State University, found that it’s often difficult to even get kids to take the test. But if you can get kids to take the test, they do well. It appears the motivations students have to take the examination have a lot to do with their performance. That’s not a good way to measure learning.

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer