The Wall Street Journal this week reports on a recent critical thinking test administered to students from 200 colleges and universities across the country. The College Learning Assessment Plus is designed to show how students are able to use analytical and problem-solving skills to display growth in reading and mathematic comprehension.
According to the report, the United States is “middle of the pack” in students’ capacity to think independently; a bleak outlook on the future of the nation’s workforce development.
But an interesting statistic emerges from the report. Of the top 68 schools measured in the survey, historically black Fayetteville State University placed 30th among the nation’s best with students showing the ability to think flexibly and to communicate solutions effectively.
FSU was the only black college included in the survey’s final results and was among the respondents to the Journal’s request for feedback on the test’s validity.
We administer the CLA at Fayetteville State University because the learning outcomes it assesses—critical thinking and written communication—are important to our overall educational mission. A major strength of the CLA is that it goes beyond multiple-choice responses. The performance task component is scenario based and requires students to analyze multiple types of information and construct an answer.
The primary purpose of administering the CLA for us is guide improvements of student learning. The scoring rubrics help us identify areas of needed improvement. This summer, for example, 18 faculty members will use CLA results to redesign courses with the goal of improving students’ critical thinking and written communication skills.
Since many of our students come to us with underdeveloped critical thinking and written communication skills, the CLA results of first-year students compared to seniors are very useful to us in measuring growth of these skills. However, to measure mastery of these skills by seniors, we have found that faculty-developed assessments that are embedded in their respective disciplines are a more reliable measure than the CLA. – Jon Young, Fayetteville State Provost
No one doubts that the United States, at least from test taking perspectives, is a big nation of underachievers and underprepared students suffering from secondary systems broken by discrimination, a lack of resources and a lack of parent and community involvement. But if the control is that the United States is a nation full of dummies, how could it be that Fayetteville State, a mid-sized HBCU in North Carolina which a year ago was targeted to have its tuition reduced to $500 per semester and possibly merged with another University of North Carolina system institution, is a critical thinking outlier?
The answer to many would be the timeless “HBCUs nurture our students, do more with less, instruct the whole student” rhetoric. But we should go deeper than that; deeper into the explorations of why HBCUs, and race, truly matter when it comes to academic and workforce development.
It can’t be overlooked or understated how curriculum and instruction at HBCUs tend to prepare students for postgraduate work, study and life in a unique way, especially for African American students. Take the advantage of black professors, staff, and mentors out of the equation, and consider the way that common academic content is delivered at HBCUs.
HBCU students are taught how to think about industry, scholarship and life from the perspective of the oppressed. They are taught to learn fields like STEM fields, business, communication, political science and the social sciences, while appreciating the views of these industries through the eyes of the poor and disenfranchised.
Learning medicine and social work at an HBCU means learning the importance of bedside manner, research, assessment and treatment for people of all races who cannot afford and may not be able to appropriately advocate for their own causes. The same goes for political science and law.
Journalism is taught to seek and find information in an effort to give voice to the voiceless. Performing arts are taught to communicate the history and experience of a marginalized people. Commerce is taught from the angle of aiding communities which do not have equal resources or opportunities to build wealth.
The HBCU experience is not just constructed to make students feel comfortable in learning, but to benefit those who may not be able to benefit themselves. Rigorous exposure to diversity, to concepts of finance and management, and social entrepreneurship that otherwise isn’t taught at most predominantly white schools is the hallmark of this experience, and why disparities in earning potential among black and white graduates is out of step with the personal and professional satisfaction HBCU graduates feel over the course of their lives.
So Fayetteville State, at least in this small sample size, showcasing that HBCU students are among the most adept at critical thinking and problem-solving is not surprising. Which group has more problems than black folks in this country? Whose prospects at life and liberty in these United States is more critical than those of racial minorities?
And if this is the capacity of students at Fayetteville State, imagine the capacity of brilliant students at HBCUs across the country?
Everyone gets that HBCUs matter, much in the same way that we all can agree that race matters. The narrative gets muddled when resources and perceptions about preferential treatment to get them becomes involved in the conversation.
But the data doesn’t lie. Time after time, statistics show that HBCUs deliver the goods on preparing students to live happy, healthier, wealthier lives. And now, it’s up to black folks to make the investment in this idea a universal social mandate, instead of a dying cultural ideology.