Testing shows UNM near top on ‘critical thinking,’ study finds

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

Students at the University of New Mexico chart more progress in critical thinking ability over their college careers than many of their peers around the country, according to a new analysis of standardized test data.

The report from The Wall Street Journal, published this week, ranked 68 public higher education institutions based on how much better their seniors perform than their freshman on the College Learning Assessment Plus test.

While the newspaper described its overall findings as “discouraging” given how many schools’ seniors showed deficiencies, its report provided some welcome news for UNM. New Mexico’s largest university had the third-best score for adding value between freshman and senior year.

UNM, the only New Mexico school included in The Wall Street Journal’s report, ranked behind only Plymouth State (N.H.) University and Western Carolina University in the value-added metric.

UNM students actually scored better on the CLA+ than either school, but they achieved a smaller improvement.

The results, and The Wall Street Journal’s coverage, validate the work UNM has done in recent years, interim President Chaouki Abdallah said. That includes reviewing academic courses and refining final exams, particularly in core subjects, to better assess students’ real-world skills.

UNM has used CLA+ and similar tests in recent years to gauge how well the school prepares students for life after they leave. The tests provide insight beyond mere graduation rates, Abdallah said.

UNM has implemented numerous programs that have led to increased graduation rates; about 26 percent of UNM students now graduate in four years and about half finish in six.

“Critical thinking is one of those areas that employers say they want. We think we’re doing it in college, but in many cases we were not measuring that,” Abdallah said.

Greg Heileman, UNM’s vice provost for teaching and learning, said nothing specifically requires the school to administer CLA+, but UNM’s regents have pushed for evidence about the value of a UNM education.

UNM has typically done well on such tests, he added.

About 200 schools around the country use CLA+, according to The Wall Street Journal. The newspaper sought records from about 100 and ranked the 68 with statistically valid results.

The CLA+ features a “performance task” that requires students to formulate a written response to a problem using evidence provided in data tables, technical reports and other materials. It also includes a series of selected-response questions to test scientific and quantitative reasoning, critical reading and more.

The Wall Street Journal used UNM’s CLA+ results from 2014 for the rankings. UNM administered the test to 172 freshmen and 142 seniors that year. Mastery levels were “below basic,” “basic,” “proficient” and “advanced.”

Eighty-five percent of the seniors rated either proficient or advanced compared with 57 percent of freshmen.

Critics of the test have questioned the results’ meaning, since students may not take it seriously – UNM often entices students to take the voluntary test by dangling perks like free parking passes – and because freshmen at more competitive schools may have less room to improve, according to The Wall Street Journal.

But Heileman said it is just one of many tools UNM uses.

“I think this is really just a measure that we use to get a sense of how well we’re doing,” Heileman said. “There are many, many other assessments we do in addition to this that more directly inform our programs.”

Link to Wall Street Journal story.

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