Jeremy Tate remembers when he tried to inspire his high-school students with talk of great things. “I brought up ethics, astronomy, and more,” he says. “I wanted them to understand the importance of their education.” Then a girl spoke up: “Why would it matter if it’s not on the SAT?”
Her question has haunted him ever since — and it also roused him to found the Classic Learning Test (CLT), a company that seeks to challenge the duopoly of the ACT and the SAT, the pair of tests that dominate the world of college-entrance exams and increasingly dictate the content of America’s school curricula. Two years ago, only about 1,000 students took the CLT, and few college admissions officers even knew what it was. Last year, more than 10,000 took it, and more than 100 schools accepted it on applications. Tate hopes for 35,000 test-takers this school year, and possibly 100,000 within three years.
In short order, the CLT has started to become to standardized tests what homeschooling and the classical-education movement are to public schools: a flourishing alternative for parents and teachers whose vision of learning differs sharply from what goes on in most of America’s classrooms. Its continued success may even persuade some schools to return to more traditional content. “We’re trying to encourage familiarity with the Western canon and offer a rigorous measure of reasoning, education, and academic formation,” says Tate. “We also want students to read the Great Books, and we think this test is a way to get them to do that.”
The 37-year-old Tate was born in Oregon but grew up mostly in Maryland. His mother was a public-school teacher, and Tate followed her into the profession. He earned a degree at Louisiana State University and taught for three years in Brooklyn. That’s where he first witnessed what he regards as the central crisis in American education: “We have an epidemic of student complacency,” he says. “We’ve removed the great questions of life from our public schools. Nobody studies philosophy, ethics, or religion. Any element of the transcendent is gone. Everything is utilitarian and the students are bored.”
Tate eventually moved back to Maryland and took a job at Broadneck High School, close to the shores of Chesapeake Bay. One of his duties there was to help students who had flunked English. “I was supposed to teach them with the same terrible textbook that already had failed them,” he says. “I decided to ignore it and instead to immerse them in Flannery O’Connor.” A southern Catholic, O’Connor wrote fiction about the big ideas that Tate says public schools have rejected. “Her short stories absolutely hooked them,” he says, citing “Good Country People” and “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” in particular. “It made my students aware of greater realities.”
Around the same time, to earn extra income on nights and weekends, Tate had started to teach SAT-preparation courses. He also encountered parents and teachers who were frustrated by the SAT’s decision to align itself with Common Core, the initiative to set de facto national curriculum standards. “Their dissatisfaction was intense,” he says. “So I assumed that somebody would develop a new standardized test for them.” He looked around but couldn’t find any serious efforts to take on the twin behemoths of the ACT and SAT. Tate mentioned this to David Wagner, a childhood friend who had built a career in management consulting. In 2015, they decided to do it themselves, forming the CLT as a private company, with headquarters in Annapolis. Today, Tate is its president and Wagner its CEO. “We have an opportunity to become a leader in educational assessments and a true competitor to the ACT and SAT,” says Wagner.
For college admissions officers, the value of a good standardized test is obvious: Unlike grade-point averages and letters of recommendation, such a test allows them to compare students on a common scale. The originators of the SAT (first given in 1926) and the ACT (in 1959) also thought that their efforts would bust up class privileges, giving the bright children of Wisconsin factory workers a chance to shine alongside the WASPish graduates of swanky boarding schools in Massachusetts. They talked of enabling a “meritocracy” (even as picky classicists scoffed at the word’s Latin root and Greek suffix, regarding it as an ugly linguistic chimera). By the 1960s, millions of aspiring meritocrats took one or both of the tests, establishing the now-familiar rituals that involve yellow No. 2 pencils, filled-in ovals, and Saturday-morning sitzfleisch.
The tests also came under severe scrutiny, with allegations that parents could game the system by purchasing test-prep instruction for their kids. Others charged that tests were biased against racial and ethnic minorities. Sensitive to these criticisms, the ACT and SAT have struggled to wipe out anything that might grant one type of student an undue advantage over another. They avoid questions about yachts or farms or beach volleyball because some students may relate to them better than others do. All such subjects are verboten, as are words such as “verboten,” which might give an edge to kids with German-speaking ancestors.
This leveling impulse has wiped out anything resembling an assumption of cultural literacy, including many things that lots of parents want their kids to know. Mentioning an “Achilles’ heel” might help the students who have read Homer. A passage from the Bible could aid churchgoers. Even a reference to Mount Vernon is suspect because it conceivably could assist a kid who once visited George Washington’s home on a class trip. “This is why we see so many questions about penguins in Antarctica,” says Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University who once wrote questions for standardized tests and now advises the CLT. “Everyone is equally distant.”
None of this necessarily renders the ACT and SAT worthless, but it does mean the tests don’t measure much of the knowledge that a good education ought to include. Last summer, CLT researcher Nicholas Sileo took a close look at the reading sections of SAT practice tests. He found that more than 40 percent of the passages focused on scientific topics, but only a single question considered ethics, and none mentioned religion. About 15 percent dealt with the role of women in society. The tests drew from a handful of classic novelists but more often relied on modern writers such as Lydia Minatoya, Daniyal Mueenuddin, and Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Abraham Lincoln showed up but the Founding Fathers were completely absent.
“They’ve eliminated a lot of meaningful content,” says Tate. That’s bad enough. But the denuded tests have an effect that may be even worse: As schools become more obsessed with test scores, fueled in part by Common Core, they’re feeling greater pressure to reshape their curricula and to “teach to the test,” as the saying goes. If the test doesn’t reward students who have studied what Matthew Arnold called “the best that has been thought and said,” then there’s little point in preferring Mark Twain (who is not on the practice exams) to MacDonald Harris (who is). As the girl said: Why would it matter if it’s not on the SAT?
One response among some colleges and universities has been to quit requiring standardized tests entirely: More than 1,000 are now “test optional,” according to FairTest, a group that has campaigned for years against high-stakes exams. In June, the University of Chicago made headlines when it joined the movement, which also includes Brandeis, Catholic University, and New York University.
The CLT takes a different approach. Rather than giving up on tests, it seeks to make a better one. The sample version on its website features passages from Aristotle, Benjamin Franklin, Adam Smith, Pope John Paul II, and even Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the Obama administration. Students read these for comprehension and grammar. There’s also a math section. “We believe that a certain body of knowledge should be a component of education,” says Thomas Mach, vice president for academics at Cedarville University, a Christian school in Ohio that adopted the CLT earlier this year. “Many of our students come from families that believe this, and the CLT evaluates what they know.”
Students who take the CLT have two hours to answer 120 questions. They earn a point for every correct answer and receive their results the same day. CLT’s website claims that a score of 114 is comparable to a perfect score on the ACT or SAT. A handful of students earn perfect scores on those tests every year, but so far nobody has done the same on the CLT. The top score, says Tate, is 118. “Our test is tough, which makes it easier for schools to distinguish between the best candidates.”
Most of the schools that accept the CLT are small liberal-arts colleges or have religious affiliations. A few enjoy national reputations, such as Hillsdale College (where I teach) and Wheaton College. The largest is Liberty University, with 15,000 residential students. Many are tiny: The Native American Bible College in Kansas enrolls fewer than a hundred. Tate says the next steps will be to increase the number of schools that accept the test and to work with classically minded secondary schools that want to use the CLT as a way to gauge the progress of their own students.
It turns out that teaching to the test may not be such a bad thing — if the test is the CLT.
Editor’s note: This piece has been emended since its original posting.