Employers Say They Don’t Trust Grade-Point Averages
Next spring, seniors at about 200 U.S. colleges will take a new test that could prove more important to their future than final exams: an SAT-like assessment that aims to cut through grade-point averages and judge students’ real value to employers.
A new test for college seniors that aims to be the SAT for prospective employers is the latest blow to the monopoly long-held by colleges and universities on what it means to be well-educated. Doug Belkin and Michael Poliakoff, American Council of Trustees and Alumni V.P. of Policy, discuss on Lunch Break. Photo: AP.
The test, called the Collegiate Learning Assessment, “provides an objective, benchmarked report card for critical thinking skills,” said David Pate, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at St. John Fisher College, a small liberal-arts school near Rochester, N.Y. “The students will be able to use it to go out and market themselves.”
“For too long, colleges and universities have said to the American public, to students and their parents, ‘Trust us, we’re professional. If we say that you’re learning and we give you a diploma it means you’re prepared,’ ” said Michael Poliakoff, vice president of policy for the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. “But that’s not true.”
The new voluntary test, which the nonprofit behind it calls CLA +, represents the latest threat to the fraying monopoly that traditional four-year colleges have enjoyed in defining what it means to be well educated.
Even as students spend more on tuition—and take on increasing debt to pay for it—they are earning diplomas whose value is harder to calculate. Studies show that grade-point averages, or GPAs, have been rising steadily for decades, but employers feel many new graduates aren’t prepared for the workforce.
HNTB Corp., a national architectural firm with 3,600 employees, see value in new tools such as the CLA +, said Michael Sweeney, a senior vice president. Even students with top grades from good schools may not “be able to write well or make an argument,” he said. “I think at some point everybody has been fooled by good grades or a good resume.”
The new test “has the potential to be a very powerful tool for employers,” said Ronald Gidwitz, a board member of the Council for Aid to Education, the group behind the test, and a retired chief executive of Helene Curtis, a Chicago-based hair-care company that was bought by Unilever in 1996.
Only one in four employers think that two- and four-year colleges are doing a good job preparing students for the global economy, according to a 2010 survey conducted for the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Meanwhile, GPAs have been on the rise. A 2012 study looking at the grades of 1.5 million students from 200 four-year U.S. colleges and universities found that the percentage of A’s given by teachers nearly tripled between 1940 and 2008. A college diploma is now more a mark “of social class than an indicator of academic accomplishment,” said Stuart Rojstaczer, a former Duke University geophysics professor and co-author of the study.
Employers such as General Mills Inc. and Procter & Gamble Co. long have used their own job-applicant assessments. At some companies such as Google Inc., GPAs carry less weight than they once did because they have been shown to have little correlation with job success, said a Google spokeswoman.
At Teach for America, which recruits college students to teach in rural and urban school districts, the GPA is one of just dozens of things used to winnow nearly 60,000 applicants for 5,900 positions. Candidates who make it to the second step of the process are given an in-house exam that assesses higher-order thinking, said Sean Waldheim, vice president of admissions at the group. “We’ve found that our own problem-solving activities work best to measure the skills we’re looking for,” he said.
The Council for Aid to Education, the CLA + test’s creator, is a New York-based nonprofit that once was part of Rand Corp. The 90-minute exam is based on a test that has been used by 700 schools to grade themselves and improve how well their students are learning.
The CLA + will be open to anyone—whether they are graduating from a four-year university or have taken just a series of MOOCs—and students will be allowed to show their scores to prospective employees. The test costs $35, but most schools are picking up the fee. Among schools that will use CLA + are the University of Texas system, Flagler College in Florida and Marshall University in West Virginia.
The CLA + is scored on the 1600-point scale once used by the SAT “because everyone is familiar with that,” said Chris Jackson, director of partner development at the Council for Aid to Education. Instead of measuring subject-area knowledge, it assesses things like critical thinking, analytical reasoning, document literacy, writing and communication.
Cory LaDuke, a 21-year-old senior at St. John Fisher, said he had mixed feelings about taking the CLA + but understood why employers might be skeptical of some graduates because “some people don’t work that hard and fake their way through it,” he said.
Other groups also have been seeking ways to better judge graduates’ skills. The Lumina Foundation, which aims to boost the number of college graduates, is offering a way to standardize what students should know once they earn a degree. The MacArthur Foundation has helped fund a system of “badges” for online learning to show mastery of certain skills. Last Thursday, President Barack Obama said he wants the federal government to devise a ratings system to gauge colleges’ performance based on student outcomes.
Meanwhile, established testing companies are introducing new tools. Earlier this year, Educational Testing Service, which developed the Graduate Record Exam, announced two certificates to reward high marks on its Proficiency Profile, which assesses critical thinking, reading, writing and math.
And ACT, the nonprofit that administers the college-admission exam of the same name, has a National Career Readiness Certificate, which measures skills such as synthesizing and applying information presented graphically.
Educational Testing Service was surprised to learn through a survey last spring that more than a quarter of businesses were using the GRE to evaluate job applicants, said David Payne, an ETS vice president.
Sean Keegan, a 2011 graduate of Tufts University, has posted his GRE on his resume because he landed in the 97th percentile, even though he isn’t applying to graduate school. “I think it shows I’m relatively smart,” said Mr. Keegan, who is looking for work in finance. “So far, I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from employers.”