Inside the new Classic Learning Test: Why are FL conservatives pushing for it, and what’s on it?

By: - September 8, 2023 6:00 am

Classroom. Credit: Getty Images

In a national climate where there are growing calls to abolish college admissions tests such as the SAT and ACT, Florida is set to add an alternative exam: the Classic Learning Test — a three-section exam on verbal reasoning, grammar and writing, and quantitative reasoning, or math, that has been pushed by conservative politicians and religious activists.

How Florida students will fare on the alternative test, CLT for short, isn’t known yet. But the new exam comes at a time when Gov. Ron DeSantis has been overhauling K-12 schools and colleges and universities, spawning lawsuits over conservative changes in education.

Taryn Boyes, a spokesperson for CLT, said the test has mainly been accepted by private, liberal arts universities, many of which tend to be religious, but insisted that the test in itself is not ideological.

“This is not a Christian test, and we are not a Christian company,” Boyes said.

However, of the 12 private institutions in Florida that now accept the CLT, 11 are religiously affiliated. It is a list that includes Pensacola Christian College, Trinity Baptist College, and Ave Maria University.

Boyes said to think of the word “classic” in the test’s name as meaning “timeless,” a test meant to unearth foundational skill, logic, and critical thinking. “Think about how much [the SAT and ACT] are based on gaming the test, tips and tricks, how to study for this particular type of question,” Boyes said.  “That’s not educating students and it’s not enriching students.”

What’s on the test?

In an online practice test, the verbal reasoning section features readings from “The Epic of Gilgamesh;” Plato’s “The Republic;” “The Federalist Papers;” and “The Way of Perfection” by Saint Teresa of Ávila — a 16th-century text described by the Institute of Carmelite Studies as a “handbook for spiritual formation” for nuns.

The grammar and writing portion includes a “Philosophy/Religion” section with a reading from Booker T. Washington’s “Up From Slavery.” The writer Ta-Nehisi Coates once wrote that Washington was “the most effective and powerful black conservative in this country’s history.”

The “Historical Profile” is about the Enlightenment thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the “Science” section is a reading on radioactive materials.

The Classic Learning Test has already been accepted by more than 250 colleges and universities, with the Florida university system likely to be added Friday | Source: Classic Learning Test

“You obviously need mathematical knowledge,” Boyes said regarding the third, Quantitative Reasoning section. “But it’s less formulaic and more an emphasis on how well students are able to work through the problems.”

The CLT operators say their test is shorter than other standardized tests, with a range of 120 to 135 minutes. The test’s has 120 questions and is scored on a range of 0-120.

In comparison, the SAT and ACT can respectively take more than four hours with breaks plus the optional essay, according to The Princeton Review.

The SAT has three components — reading, writing and language, and math — for a total of 154 questions. The ACT has four sections — English, math, reading, and science — for a total of 215 questions.

The CLT includes an optional thirty-minute essay; while the ACT’s optional essay is forty minutes.

When faced with an exam that has fewer questions, takes up less time, and fulfills the same requirements for a scholarship, the Classic Learning Test might appeal to Florida students.

How did the new exam come about?

The Florida Legislature passed HB 1537 in May and DeSantis signed it into law, allowing the state education system to incorporate the Classic Learning Test as a metric for students to qualify for Bright Futures Scholarships. Those help students and families pay college tuition and fees. Students can use the CLT for certain graduation requirements.

Meanwhile, the Board of Governors, which oversees the state university system, is preparing to allow the CLT test for use as an entrance exam for state universities. The board is expected to approve that move at a meeting on Friday.

How the CLT test will compare to the longtime ACT and SAT exams for admissions is not entirely clear, but the state has established how the test will integrate into Bright Futures eligibility.

In August, the Department of Education provided the new numbers in a memorandum on Bright Futures, which now includes CLT:

To qualify for a Florida Academic Scholarship, students must score at least a 96 on the CLT — a score concordant with a 29 on the ACT and a 1340 on the SAT, respectively. To qualify for a Florida Medallion Scholarship, students must score at least an 84 on the CLT — concordant with a 25 on the ACT and a 1210 on the SAT, respectively.

The university system

On Friday, the Board of Governors, which oversees the state university system, will vote on a regulation that would require universities to accept the CLT as part of its admissions process. 

When the Phoenix asked for comment, a spokesman provided a statement from State University System Chancellor Ray Rodrigues:

“[The CLT] places a strong emphasis on classical education, which includes a focus on reading, writing, and critical thinking skills,” Rodrigues said. “Ultimately, the choice of which exam to take should be based on an individual’s academic strengths, goals, and the admission requirements of their colleges of interest.  The CLT admissions test is yet another path for Florida students aspiring to attain a degree and contribute to our economy.”

University of South Florida spokesperson Althea Johnson said the university “is awaiting for the potential approval from the Florida Board of Governors regarding several regulation amendments, which would add the Classic Learning Test to the list of standardized tests that all state institutions may accept for admissions,” Johnson said in an email. “As a state university, USF follows [Board of Governors] regulations.”

“If approved by the FLBOG, UCF will accept the ACT, SAT, and CLT,” University of Central Florida spokesperson Mark Schlueb told the Phoenix in an email. “We do not prefer one test over another and students are encouraged to submit scores from any or all for admission review.”

Robert Schaeffer, director of public education at FairTest, described CLT as “just another test.”

“[The CLT] is very similar to the SAT, which means that it is, at best, a weak predictor of college performance. It is susceptible to language and cultural biases, and most importantly, it’s not needed in the admissions process,” he said.

“The SAT is a proven, valid predictor of college performance, based on years of published and accessible research and data,” according to the New York-based College Board. “We have not seen published evidence of CLT’s validity or predictiveness of college performance.”

Allie Ciaramella, a spokesperson for the ACT, declined to comment about the CLT.

The founder and CEO

CLT’s founder and CEO, Jeremy Tate, wrote a letter on his website about how the test originated when he was teaching evening high school to eleventh-grade students.

“These were students who had experienced years of boredom in school — and I was supposed to re-teach the same material that had failed to gain their attention the first time. Looking through the textbook, I flipped through page after page of fragmented passages, meaningless activities, and bland stories that had no chance of rousing these kids from their indifference.

“So I did something radical: I chucked it. Then I sat the students down and made a deal with them: no homework, no tests, no quizzes, no busy work, and no textbook. I then spent my own money on copies of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories. The game plan for class would be simple — each evening, we would form a circle, read out loud, and stop to discuss when anyone felt the urge … .”

“This amazing experience helped me to form a vision for CLT,” he wrote.

Tate has written for publications such as First Things, a website that urges for readers’ support to “champion the truth of orthodoxy amidst a proliferation of false religions;” as well as for conservative publications such as The American Conservative, The Federalist, and National Review.

He has been listed as a speaker for Repairing the Ruins, a religious activist group that says its mission is “restoration of classical Christian education for God’s people.”

Overall, Boyes said, “The CLT is a test for everyone from any educational background. We want people to know it is not a partisan exam. It is not a red-state exam.”

“We are here to harken back to a tradition of education that is long-standing, that has crossed the aisle for hundreds of years,” Boyes said. “Our founding fathers in both political parties were educated in this kind of tradition of the liberal arts.”

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Christian Casale
Christian Casale

Christian covers education, politics, and whatever else interests him for the Florida Phoenix. He has previously worked as a reporter and editor with the Independent Florida Alligator.