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Florida continues to promote a Christian-approved alternative to the SAT
The "Classic Learning Test" is a pitiful alternative to the SAT and ACT
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In Florida, familiarity with analyzing religious writing may earn you a ticket to college.
Last week, Florida’s public university system announced that it would accept results from the Classic Learning Test (CLT) for students applying to places like the University of Florida or Florida State University. Incoming freshmen can submit their CLT scores instead of the more traditional SAT or ACT tests.
The use of one standardized test over another may seem relatively harmless at a time when many colleges are shifting away from them altogether, but this isn’t really about the exams.
This is part of a larger push by Gov. Ron DeSantis to harm public education as we know it in part by letting Christian Nationalists run the show. He’s already used his power to ban textbooks he deems too “woke,” put more guns in more schools, criticize (without merit) AP African American Studies, make it easier to censor all kinds of books, call for the end of tenure, and let his allies conduct a “hostile takeover” of a school he deemed too progressive. Now his appointed allies are trying to make the CLT an acceptable alternative to the better-known secular entrance exams.
The problem with the CLT is that there’s very little evidence that it’s a good indicator of college preparedness. The test, which launched in 2015, has only been taken by about 21,000 students total. By comparison, 1.7 million students took the SAT and 1.3 million took the ACT in 2022 alone. Both of those latter tests are constantly revised and updated. There’s no similar track record for the CLT. Furthermore, 85% of the students who’ve taken the CLT are white and 99% of test-takers attend private schools and charter schools or are home-schooled. The “C” may as well stand for “Christian.”
Amanda Phalin, a University of Florida associate professor and the only member of the Board of Governors to vote against accepting the CLT, said that her concern was the lack of information about whether the test was useful:
“I’m not against allowing the use of the CLT,” Phalin said. “I oppose the use of it at this time because we do not have the empirical evidence to show that this assessment is of the same quality as the ACT and the SAT.”
So why are conservatives so eager to push the CLT as a valid alternative to the ACT and SAT despite that lack of information?
Simple. The Republican base loves it.
The CLT is the test of choice for several conservative Christian colleges (like Michigan’s Hillsdale College) while the SAT has become a bogeyman for conservatives because it’s run by the College Board, which they see as too liberal. (The College Board oversees AP testing.) The CLT’s Board of Academic Advisors reads like a laundry list of faith-based school leaders, conservative activists (e.g. Christopher Rufo), and (hey why not) Cornel West.
In some ways, the CLT looks very familiar, with sections devoted to math, writing, and verbal reasoning. But the topics are much more narrow—and much more religious. It highlights the “centrality of the Western tradition” at the expense of all other ones, which means there’s a preference for works that are white, Western European, and Judeo-Christian. If you think Dead White Guys represent the pinnacle of education and modern writers who cover a wider range of topics can be ignored, this is the test for you.
Consider a sample passage from the exam, featuring a section from St. Teresa of Ávila’s The Way of Perfection. While that passage could appear on the SAT, the SAT has a much deeper well of options because they’re not limiting the exam to certain kinds of writing. The CLT, however, emphasizes faith-based works and what they call the “classics.”
The questions aren’t exactly tough to figure out, either. A writer for Mother Jones took a practice CLT test last month and showed how one question could be answered without even reading the passage. It’s very reminiscent of the Accelerated Christian Education curriculum.
The College Board (which, again, oversees the SAT) also said the CLT’s questions leave a lot to be desired:
In reviewing a published CLT practice test, we found that 25% of questions were below high school grade level. For example, statistics concepts are not tested on the CLT. As a result, scoring very well on the CLT may not necessarily indicate an equally high score on the SAT, which is aligned to high school grade levels represented in state standards.
Despite those very serious concerns, Florida’s Republicans have been quick to elevate the exam.
But maybe you believe it doesn’t matter. It’s not like students remember the passages on their standardized tests. Plus, the questions (at least in theory) are about whether you can make sense of the writing, not about the beliefs themselves, right?
Yet consider how students would have to prepare for the exam.
If Florida’s biggest universities are accepting the CLT, which is shorter and cheaper to take than the SAT and ACT, teachers may feel pressured to put more religious essays and excerpts in front of students in order to give them a better feel for what they may come across.
That’s what this is really about. It’s a way to shove religion in public schools without explicitly endorsing a specific brand of Christian beliefs. It’s not that the CLT directly promotes religion, but it indirectly sends the message that understanding religious writing can be beneficial. For now, it also limits the options of where high school students who take the exam can go to college since most schools—the ones with a good reputation—don’t take the CLT seriously.
Some people already see through the charade.
“This decision shows that DeSantis doesn’t care about research, education, science or students,” said Akil Bello, senior director of advocacy at the National Center for Fair and Open Testing. “There’s a reason this test is usually used at Bible colleges and seminaries: the point is to be able to identify those who agree with your ideology.”
State Representative Anna Eskamani, a Democrat who voted against the use of the CLT when applying for the “Bright Future Scholarship Program” (which awards the state’s top academic students if they stay in Florida for college), cited similar concerns:
“It’s politically motivated to insert religion into our public institutions. As a firm believer for the separation of church and state, I don’t think it’s appropriate for a religious test to be used when it comes to our public universities,” Eskamani said.
If you need any more proof that there’s a right-wing bias in this test, just look at how Taryn Boyes, the CLT’s Director of Marketing, explained how there’s supposedly no political motivation on the exam:
“Students will be reading authors that are both atheist and religious. They’ll be reading Karl Marx as well as Adam Smith,” Boyes said.
Nothing says fair and balanced like equating atheism with Karl Marx…
If Florida says the CLT can be used in admissions, it may not be long before other red states follow suit. They’re desperate to approve anything that grants more legitimacy to religious writing and conservative thought.
The ideal move for colleges would be to reject standardized tests entirely, placing much more emphasis on personal statements, recommendation letters, high school academics, extra-curriculars, and interviews. But if students have to take a standardized test, they’re better off taking one of the known, battle-tested exams, despite their flaws, rather than the faith-promoting alternative that only exists because conservatives would rather create their own academic ecosystem than function in the same one as everyone else.
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