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The Citadel in Charleston, S.C., is one of the oldest and most storied military colleges in the country.

Established in 1842, and currently serving around 2300 undergraduate cadets, the Citadel is ranked as the #1 regional university/public institution in the south by U.S. News & World Report. Its alumni include Gen. William Westmoreland (Commander of US forces in Vietnam), NASA astronaut Col. Randolph Bresink, former Governor and U.S. Senator Ernest (Fritz) Hollings, and the author Pat Conroy, whose novel Lords of Discipline drew on Conroy’s experience as a Citadel cadet.

The Citadel's four-year graduation rate doubles the national average. The Citadel alumni network is legendary.

The Citadel also scores very poorly on the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) standardized exam. As reported at the Charleston Post and Courier, in 2015-16, Citadel freshmen scored below the 50th percentile. Seniors were in the bottom 10 percent of those who took the exam.

In the “value-added” metric, designed to assess progress in critical thinking from freshman to senior year, Citadel seniors scored even worse, in the bottom 2 percent of colleges and universities.

If you don’t remember, the CLA exam formed the basis of Academically Adrift, which has been used as a cudgel for those who are inclined to give a beating to the entire higher education enterprise. It is frequently cited as proof that colleges in general aren’t doing the job when it comes to developing students’ critical thinking capacities and is often cited by those who wish to remake higher education into something more like job training.

So are the alarm klaxons sounding over what’s going down at the Citadel?

Of course not, because we know that a Citadel experience is a good education. As Citadel professor Joelle Neulander tells Post and Courier reporter Deanna Pan, “I have had the privilege of teaching some of the same students through their college careers. I have been witness to amazing progress as my students move forward through their classes. My own experience tells me that students learn to think critically in our classrooms and grow intellectually through their four years with us."

So what’s happening on the CLA? The article on the Citadel offers the most common defense, that because there are no stakes attached, students don’t take it seriously. No doubt this is a factor.

Let me offer another explanation, if the example “performance task” from the available sample exam is at all indicative of the real one, what students are asked to do is mind-numbing. In the sample, you’re presented with a hypothetical political race were two candidates are facing off over policing/drug enforcement policy where you’re supposed to analyze some relevant documents and then argue for a particular stance.

I’m actually pretty keen on political strategy as a subject and even telling myself that I wanted to give my utmost, my eyes glazed quickly because the example seemed so contrived and irrelevant. There wasn’t a real or interesting idea to actually sink my teeth into. I abandoned the exam.

Assessments like the CLA can give us some potential useful information about a very particular type of critical reasoning, but it is also an exam where the reasoning is divorced from any existing knowledge. I am not aware of any real-world critical thinking that is so without context. If the goal of college was to do well on the CLA, again, based on the sample, you could coach students to beat it no problem.

But the assessment weighed against the far more diverse and complex experiences of education, many of which are impossible to quantify, is at best a curiosity, and the Citadel should feel free to ignore its terrible results.

The Citadel is fortunate to have the luxury of being able to ignore their terrible results. Because of its history and status, they are shielded from bureaucratic meddling or heavy-handed governmental oversight.

Interestingly, the Charleston area is in the midst of another standardized assessment related controversy. Schools Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait and the Charleston County School Board have been attempting to enact a program of principle reshuffling based on standardized test scores results. 

One principal, Jake Rambo of James B. Edwards Elementary in Mount Pleasant, resigned in protest, rather than accept his new assignment, accusing the superintendent and board of relying on student test scores on standardized tests as a significant (or sole, depending on who’s talking) criteria in teacher evaluation, and claiming that Superintendent Postlewait implicitly threatened his career if he didn’t accept the transfer.

The problems of Charleston County Schools are well-known and well-documented, but it is interesting to see the difference in how standardized assessments are used in these differing contexts.

The issues with and limits of the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test that Charleston Country relies on[1] are well known, having been previously litigated in other communities. Even the NWEA, creators of the MAP make clear that it is an “interim assessment” (with the same kind of low-stakes as the CLA) and not meant to be used for the purposes of teacher or student evaluation.

And yet, when it comes to marginalized and vulnerable populations within Charleston County Schools, these standardized assessments provide a rational for top-down oversight and control.

This is entirely common and predictable. “Accountability” is often weaponized against those without the means to defend themselves.

I have no wish to upend the academic culture of the Citadel over their terrible CLA scores, but maybe some of those who are willing to give our elite storied places a pass can extend the same spirit to those who have no such protections.


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