Florida Expected to Approve Classical Exam as a Competitor to the SAT

The Classic Learning Test is the college admissions exam that most students have never heard of. An alternative to the SAT and ACT for only a small number of mostly religious colleges, the test is known for its emphasis on the Western canon, with a big dose of Christian thought.

But on Friday, Florida’s public university system, which includes the University of Florida and Florida State University, is expected to become the first state system to approve the Classic Learning Test, or CLT, for use in admissions.

“We are always seeking ways to improve,” said Ray Rodrigues, the chancellor of the State University System of Florida, noting that the system, which serves a quarter million undergraduates, was the largest in the country to still require an entrance exam.

It’s the latest move by Gov. Ron DeSantis to shake up the education establishment, especially the College Board, the nonprofit behemoth that runs the SAT program.

Governor DeSantis, a Republican presidential candidate, has already rejected the College Board’s Advanced Placement course on African American studies, and sparred over content on gender and sexuality in A.P. Psychology.

Now, at a time when the College Board faces a dwindling number of students taking the SAT, Governor DeSantis is giving a big lift to an upstart competitor.

Jeremy Tate, the founder of Classic Learning Initiatives, the company that developed the test, insisted that the CLT is apolitical. It’s an effort, he said, to avoid educational fads and expose students to rich intellectual material.

The company, however, describes the CLT as part of “the larger educational freedom movement of our time” — language that echoes that of conservative supporters of private-school vouchers and tax credits for home-schoolers. The “end goal,” the company says, is “promoting a classical curriculum.”

Jeremy Tate, the founder of the Classic Learning Test, insisted that the test was apolitical. Credit…Jason Andrew for The New York Times

After a century of dominance by the College Board and the nonprofit ACT — which administers the test of the same name — the emergence of an alternative is “healthy and overdue,” said Frederick Hess, director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a center-right think tank. “It’s all for the best if this becomes a more vibrant marketplace.”

There has been pushback. The College Board and ACT say that there is little research that shows that the CLT can accurately assess college readiness. Some classics scholars say that the CLT’s vision of classical education is too narrow; others say it’s too expansive.

While there is no single definition of classical education, the CLT celebrates canonical works from Western civilization, with an emphasis on Greek, Roman and early Christian thought. Memorization, logic and debate are considered important skills.

The test has three sections: verbal reasoning, grammar and writing, and quantitative reasoning (math). Its English sections, like the SAT and ACT, ask students to read dense passages, demonstrate their comprehension via multiple-choice questions and spot grammatical errors.

But in sample materials, there is more religious thought, with passages from Thomas Aquinas; Jonathan Edwards, the Great Awakening preacher; and Teresa of Ávila, a 16th-century saint.

The CLT’s “author bank” — the range of writing that could be on an exam — includes the Mesopotamian poem “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” as well as Toni Morrison, Mary Wollstonecraft, Charles Darwin, Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells and Mohandas K. Gandhi. It heavily features Judeo-Christian religious thinkers, such as Saint Augustine, Maimonides and Martin Luther.

Mr. Tate, a former history teacher who founded the Classic Learning Test in 2015, said his company had made an effort to diversify the material by including more passages from African and South American writers. That echoes changes made by the ACT and SAT over time, but has prompted accusations of “wokeness” from the right.

Neither the SAT nor ACT publish their author banks, which is standard practice in the testing industry. Sample exams show that both tests sometimes include classic philosophical texts, but generally not religious ones. And in comparing sample exams, the SAT and ACT tend to include more contemporary memoir and fiction, while also depicting a more diverse range of modern-day people.

Priscilla Rodriguez, a senior vice president at the College Board, said there was no blanket SAT ban on religious writing, and noted that some SAT exams had featured writings from the American founders that referenced faith.

ACT, the nonprofit, said in a written statement: “We do not, and have never, narrowly focused on any one particular intellectual tradition. ACT’s primary concern has always been reflecting the material currently in use in American schools.”

Sam Davis, 20, said some of his classmates at James Madison University in Virginia would find the CLT’s reading material “bewildering,” given their experiences reading more contemporary, secular texts.

But Mr. Davis said that as a high school student, he had found the CLT to be a better reflection of his values and education at the Veritas School, a Christian academy in Richmond, Va.

“The CLT feels like it was written by humans,” he said. “You have a test out there that offers teachers and students an excuse and an opportunity to study something that feels richer and fuller.”

There is limited data available about the Classic Learning Test. From 2016 to 2023, only about 21,000 high school juniors and seniors took the exam, according to a company report; in the high school class of 2022, 1.7 million took the SAT and 1.3 million took the ACT.

The last study on the CLT’s ability to accurately measure skills, and the performance of various demographic groups, was published in 2018; the company said new statistics would be released next month.

Ms. Rodriguez, of the College Board, said the SAT was continuously tested to ensure that students’ scores would predict their performance in college — whether they attended high school in Sarasota or Singapore, public or private, progressive or Pentecostal. The CLT does not have the same research backing, she said.

Mr. Tate has grand ambitions for his test, including an expansion into the public education system.

Given those goals, Mr. Tate said he was “nervous” about the test becoming too closely associated with “a particular partisan group.”

Angel Adams Parham, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, is president of the CLT’s academic board and active in Black home-schooling and Christian education.Credit…Avishag Shaar-Yashuv for The New York Times

That concern is shared by the president of the CLT’s academic board, Angel Adams Parham, a sociologist at the University of Virginia who studies the history of race. She is personally active in Black home-schooling and Christian education.

“Yes, there are divisive politics” around classical education, Professor Parham said. “But does that mean that classical education itself is inherently divisive or exclusive? I would answer, ‘No.’”

Classics, as a discipline, has become enmeshed in its own debates over diversity, and some classics scholars are trying to shake off its reputation as an elitist subject dominated by white men. Many classicists are skeptical of the way that their field is being talked about in K-12 education.

“I could never support a test or an approach that privileges one religion and one culture above all others,” said Sarah Bond, a historian of ancient Rome at the University of Iowa.

Outside the world of religious education, colleges and students have been slow to accept the CLT. The company’s website lists a handful of secular colleges as “partners,” but several said they had little or no experience with the exam.

Stetson University, a private college in DeLand, Fla., said it would begin accepting CLT scores this year, but a spokesman said the school had not yet received requests from prospective students to submit them.

Fisk University, a historically Black college in Nashville, is listed as a partner, but said that it does not accept CLT scores.

Mr. Tate said that the company might have listed some schools because they had a general test-optional policy, suggesting openness to a broad array of admissions materials.

“We want to be No. 1 over SAT and ACT,” he said. But, he added, “We did not start the CLT because we thought standardized testing was the greatest thing in the world. We see it as a lever with a huge impact on curriculum.”

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