Florida Approves a Competitor to the SAT as Conservatives Try To Steer American Higher Education Back to Its ‘Roots’

The Classic Learning Test aims to give students another testing option that emphasizes religious texts from the Western canon that underpin American democratic ideals.

AP/Robert F. Bukaty
Governor DeSantis at a political roundtable, May 19, 2023, at Bedford, New Hampshire. This marks the third time he has clashed with the nonprofit responsible for developing and publishing the SATs, the College Board. AP/Robert F. Bukaty

This fall, a dozen colleges in Florida will use a humanities-focused alternative to the SAT and ACT tests as part of their admissions processes. The move is part of a larger effort by conservatives in the state and elsewhere in the country to revive classical studies in America. 

The Classic Learning Test aims to give students another testing option that emphasizes religious texts from the Western canon that underpin American democratic ideals. Critics question the comparability of the exam scores, but hundreds of colleges across the country now use them as part of their admissions or scholarship determinations. 

The board of governors of the State University System of Florida voted 13-to-1 last week to allow the exam on applications to its 12 campuses, representing  the first state higher education system to approve the new test. It marks the third time Governor DeSantis has clashed with the nonprofit responsible for developing and publishing the SATs, the College Board. 

Mr. DeSantis previously tussled with the organization over its integration of LGBTQ+ content in a psychology course, and also banned its inclusion of advanced placement curriculum on African American studies in high schools. He has instead pushed for classical education, signing a bill in May requiring the state-funded scholarship program, Bright Futures, to accept CLT scores to determine eligibility. 

The chief financial officer of CLT, Noah Tyler, explains that the company was founded in 2015 in response to what he describes as a “clear march to the institutions that Marxist ideologues have taken.” The exam seeks to bring “neutrality” and “sanity” to education, he tells the Sun, by introducing students to “meaningful texts” that enable “deep reflection on what it means to be human.”

By introducing students to American education’s “roots” in the humanities, Mr. Tyler says the test could help make “better lawyers, better doctors, and more ethical corporate CEOs” in the next generation. 

CLT’s board of academic advisers boasts college presidents and other education leaders — including a presidential candidate who is a former professor at Princeton and Harvard, Cornel West — who determine the content of the exam. The board promises in its mission statement to be “taking advantage of contemporary technology and testing students on more engaging material.”

Critics of CLT argue that it unfairly focuses on biblical passages and traditional Western thought, but Mr. Tyler says it does not feature a single Bible text. The test instead asks students about Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Catholic, and Protestant thinkers in an effort to highlight “the bastions of meaning that have underpinned our Western civilization,” he says.

A professor emeritus of Yiddish literature at Harvard, Ruth Wisse, agrees on the need to revive the great literary texts in American educational curriculum, among the most important of which she says is the Bible, the basis of American democracy. 

The “erosion” of the humanities has “become more and more disturbing,” Ms. Wisse tells the Sun. “Western civilization depends on the adherence to and transmission of great texts. Democracy is not biologically transmitted.”

Scaling the test beyond the 250 colleges that have already adopted it, most of which are Christian colleges and select private institutions, will require coordination between the leading standardized testing organizations in the country. The Florida legislation required CLT to develop a concordance table that provides equivalent scores on the SAT and ACT. 

A representative from the College Board, though, tells the Sun it was not aware of or involved in the production of the table, which “offers inaccurate claims about comparability between the SAT and CLT.” Methodological and comparability issues render the concorded scores “unsound” and unusable in graduation, admission, and scholarship decisions, and they “risk harm to students,” the representative says. 

The only objector on the Florida vote this week, Amanda Phalin, a Florida university system faculty representative, also contended that the exam lacked adequate research and time on the market to be implemented as a proxy for the SAT and ACT. 

Mr. Tyler, though, asserts that the College Board — whose test he rebukes as an “enrollment engine” and “marketing arm” — is not “the gatekeeper” of standardized testing: “It really is up to the universities to decide what they think is most valid and what kinds of students are most attractive to their campuses.”

The testing company also offers exams for students in grades seven through 12 and plans to expand to students as young as third grade this spring. Home-schooled students often take the test to determine their proficiency levels, as it satisfies most state standardized testing laws, and private school students are also using it to identify their academic strengths and weaknesses, Mr. Tyler explains. 

Asked by the Sun why the test has drawn support from conservatives, Mr. Tyler claimed that the test does not aim to be political but rather to empower families with freedom of choice in standardized testing. 

“We’re not conservatives,” he says, “but we’re kind of education conservatives in the sense that we really want to see choices for students to take the assessment that best matches their educational background.”

To adopt the test is to “reject the status quo,” the Florida university system said in a statement this week. “Florida will lead the way in filling our state and nation with bright and competitive students,” it declared.

The New York Sun

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