A post-college SAT awaits many incoming students

Graduates Marie Burkland and Sarah Sprague congratulate each other after receiving their diplomas during MIT's commencement.

About 200 colleges will offer a test to students this academic year that could help employers cut around grade inflation and understand a graduate's real-world readiness.

For years, employers have relied on graduating students' grade point averages to assess their skills and potential. But employers as well as colleges have been wondering for years, can a GPA alone really tell you that much?

Next spring, seniors at 200 colleges will be offered the chance to take a new test billed by some as a "post-grad exit exam," which may prove more important than that coveted high GPA.  

The 90-minute Collegiate Learning Assessment Plus (CLA+) is an expansion of the Collegiate Learning Assessment, which 700 schools have already used to measure their own performances. On a scale of 1600 (like the SATs), the CLA+ evaluates students' problem solving, quantitative reasoning, writing and critical reasoning faculties.

"What we’re offering to students is the opportunity to illustrate to employers that they have these skills," Chris Jackson, director of business development at the Council for Aid to Education, the non-profit that created the CLA+, told MSN News.

Test takers will have the opportunity to include their scores in their resumes and send their results to potential employers.

One of the schools that will offer the CLA+ next spring is Stonehill College in Easton, Mass. According to Martin McGovern, Stonehill's communications director, the college of 2,500 will administer the CLA+ starting this fall as a measurement to assess its academic program. 300 freshmen this year have already taken the exam, and they'll do so again when they're seniors to judge the quality of Stonehill's education.

"The CLA+ is just a small part of a longitudinal assessment of general education at the college," McGovern told MSN News. Stonehill freshmen will be chosen at random for the evaluation and can decline to take part in it.

Employers have good reason to welcome a new post-graduate exam. From 1940 to 2008, according to independent researcher and former Duke University geophysics professor Stuart Rojstaczer, the percentage of A's given at four-year institutions nearly tripled. The subsequent GPA inflation has left employers with a clouded metric for assessing applicants.

For a number of reasons, Rojstaczer pointed out, the CLA+ may not be a panacea for grade inflation. For one, many companies already use their own evaluations to assess college graduates, he said, asking them to complete written examinations and engage in verbal problem solving exercises.

Rojstaczer also noted that highly ranked schools would most likely balk at an examination that potentially disputes the prestigious education they offer.

"If you're coming from MIT, are you going to care about the CLA+?" he said. "No, you already have your reputation."

"But if you're at a school with not much of a reputation on the rankings hierarchy and you want your students to be appreciated — which they should be — then you might go to a test like this for validation that a student from your lowly ranked university is as good as students anywhere,"  Rojstaczer said. "GPAs were once a quick and dirty way of examining an applicant, but nowadays hardly any employers consider them a reliable indicator of aptitude.

"It's quite possible a graduate has 3.7 GPA and is an entirely mediocre student who is quite immature," he said. "People thought it [GPAs] meant something, but then you say, 'Wait a minute, this person isn’t even showing up on time.'"

The problem of grade inflation is something schools and students have been grappling with for years. In an attempt to attract and retain students, some colleges, experts say, are involved in inflating students' grades.

Related: The 11 worst public university grad rates

"Universities have transformed from students being acolytes to students being customers of a product," he said. In his study, Rojstaczer said students see an A as a "reward for their purchase."

"In this culture, professors are not only compelled to grade easier, but also to water down course content," he wrote. "Both intellectual rigor and grading standards have weakened."

Related: Poll shows parents back standardized tests

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