TTU puts higher education to the test with NSF-funded critical thinking assessment test

As college students take finals across the country this month, some higher education leaders, including the U.S. Secretary of Education, are calling for standardized tests to measure the quality of education at higher education institutions.

In response, the National Science Foundation has granted Tennessee Tech University more than $800,000 to refine and disseminate a new critical thinking assessment test. And it stretches beyond bubble sheets and #2 pencils to determine how well students process and apply information.

"The CAT Instrument is designed to assess a broad range of skills that faculty across the country feel are important components of critical thinking and real-world problem solving," said Barry Stein, principal investigator. "The test was designed to be interesting and engaging for students.   All of the questions are derived from real-world situations."

The one-hour test features short-answer essays that are graded by faculty. Examples of the types of questions include evaluating advertising claims, determining solutions to problems using additional readings that may or may not be relevant, and making decisions about real-world activities.

While some higher education leaders are pushing for a mandatory exit exam for all graduates, this test is more focused on helping faculty members see their students' weaknesses and understand areas that need improvement.

"This project puts us at the forefront of meeting the need for measurements that speak to an institution's ability to provide each student an education that prepares him or her to think critically and solve real-world problems," said Stein.

NSF funding allows TTU to develop four regional train-the-trainer workshops to prepare representatives from 20 institutions across the country to lead scoring workshops for the CAT instrument at their own institution over the next three years.

According to a recent Newsweek article, many in higher education are skeptical about mandating standardized multiple-choice tests at colleges and universities because such tests fail to take into account the diverse experiences higher education provides in addition to discipline-specific knowledge.   The CAT instrument provides an alternative to these standardized tests and assesses those skills that faculty members think are most important across disciplines.

The CAT instrument is the product of extensive development, testing and refinement with a broad range of institutions, and faculty and students across the country.   Many individuals at TTU have played an important role in the project including the co-principal investigators Ada Haynes and Michael Redding, as well as the advisory board, senior personnel, doctoral students, and faculty scorers.    More information about the project can be found on the website or .