The Classical Alternative to the SAT

Can a new alternative, grounded in Western culture, take off?

October 21, 2019

The last academic year, about 21,000 students took a college entrance exam that was not the SAT or the ACT. They took the Classic Learning Test, an alternative to the establishment tests.

Twenty-one thousand sounds like a lot of students, and it was only the third year the test was offered. The test had more than 10,000 students in its second year, and a little more than 1,000 in its first.

That's a nice rate of growth, but more than two million students took the SAT last year, and about the same took the ACT. (Some took both.)

So what is this new test? And can it challenge those that have long dominated the college preparatory test market? While many educators (and the founders of the new test) love to complain about the SAT and the ACT, those tests are continuing to innovate. And a note on the 21,000: they are mostly private high school students.

The Test

The test covers verbal reasoning, grammar/writing and quantitative reasoning. It takes two hours to complete (compared to three hours for the SAT and two hours, 55 minutes, for the ACT -- plus time for the essay portion). The cost is $54, more than the SAT and ACT without the essay but less than it costs with the essay. And, like the other tests, CLT has 10th-grade and 8th-grade versions.

While the reduced time may attract some students, the nature of the questions will attract others.

Questions on the verbal reasoning section, for example, might come from an Albert Einstein speech in 1921 or from Pope John Paul II's statement in 1984 or feature questions on Machiavelli's The Prince.

To those who would question whether there is too much of a focus on Western culture, as it's been traditionally defined, the test makes no apologies.

"The CLT is far from value-neutral: it challenges test-takers to think critically about our intellectual tradition, and to engage with it morally and ethically," says a book with practice tests. "Why the focus on Western culture? Because it is the tradition that has most influenced the culture and development of the United States. The CLT's focus on this tradition presents students with ideas, topics, and issues that [they] will encounter repeatedly in college and beyond."

Jeremy Tate, chief executive officer of the exam, said he started the business in 2015. He had been working in the test-prep industry and was struck by the dissatisfaction of many with the SAT and ACT.

"As a guy who loves philosophy" and the classics, and who knows others who do, it was easy to find supporters.

Frank Batten Jr. (his late father founded the Weather Channel) and Michael Ortner (a tech entrepreneur) were key early backers.

The test is produced in-house, out of a small office in Annapolis, Md., which Tate notes is the home of St. John's College, one of the 172 colleges that accept the test. But unless they are applying to say, Hillsdale College (which shares many of the CLT's values), it is used more as a supplement than exclusively. The other colleges that will look at it include the predictable (Wheaton College of Illinois) but also some public institutions (Christopher Newport University).

The Challenge

Most of the students who take the CLT today are private school students, homeschooled or charter school students. Less than 1 percent attend public schools. Eighty-five percent are white.

Tate says his plan is to start with the private schools and then to expand with a push on the noncharter publics, which he very much wants.

Also, he is aware that having 85 percent of his students be white does not make his students desirable to most colleges. Tate says the demographics of his students will change when more schools embrace the CLT.

For now, he draws strength from Keith Nix, headmaster of the Veritas School in Richmond, Va. Every student there takes the CLT -- although most also take the SAT.

"What attracted me to it was that it's like the SAT 30 to 40 years ago," he said. "It's rich, robust work. I love the analogies. I love the logic. And they need to demonstrate some understanding of philosophy."

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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