Entrepreneurs Seek to Disrupt College Admissions Testing—Will Knowledge or Critical Thinking Model Prevail?

Published February 14, 2019

Starting a company from scratch that’s able to compete with the long-entrenched SAT and ACT in the college-entrance testing business sounds like an impossible dream. However, a pair of Annapolis-based entrepreneurs, philosopher Jeremy Tate and businessman David Wagner, have proven with the Classic Learning Test (CLT) that a market does exist for an SAT/ACT alternative that is based on the works of the greatest minds of Western civilization.

Just three years after the two long-time buddies ruminated on the troubled direction of education in the United States, particularly after the College Board’s decision to align fully with the nationalized Common Core curricular standards, the CLT had won approval from 145 colleges and universities as a legitimate indicator of an applicant’s readiness for college-level studies.

The test calls on aspiring collegians to show they recognize ideas advanced by such thinkers as C.S. Lewis, Flannery O’Connor, Martin Luther King Jr., Plato, and Socrates, as well as that they understand the applicability of timeless lessons concerning truth, ethics, and morality. The CLT tests knowledge coupled with an unabashed devotion to values that have shaped culture and individual lives.

If entrepreneurial challenges to the largely values-free SAT behemoth have been welcomed, what about a challenge from an outfit that instead seeks to develop tests of “how people think,” not what they know? Would that approach be a hit or a bust in today’s education world?

Interestingly, such a project exists and got its start in 2015, about the same time Tate and Wagner brainstormed the CLT. The company is called Imbellus, and it has kept a rather low profile—until recently. Now with hype from a Forbes profile, a new infusion of $14 million in investment capital, and an appointment of former College Board executive Jack Buckley as its president and chief scientist, Imbellus looks to be positioned to make an impact on the testing market.

The pitch on the company’s website (Imbellus.com) is unconventional, to say the least. The founder and CEO is 26-year-old Rebecca Kantar, who proudly proclaims herself a Harvard dropout and more generally a person who has always hated school. Her intent is to replace SAT, ACT, Advanced Placement, and other standardized tests with assessments that delve into “deeper thinking skills.” One objective of Imbellus is to liberate high schools “to teach things that are relevant, practical, and interesting to their students”—shades of the relevance craze of the 1960s. Simulations challenging test-takers to solve problems in their own ways will be central to Imbellus’ assessments.

After examining scads of Imbellus promotional material, Emory University English professor Mark Bauerlein, a leading advocate for liberal arts education, finds nothing that affirms the value of humanistic study. “The staff and researchers don’t praise beauty and sublimity; they invoke the workplace and automation,” he wrote in a recent withering critique. “They don’t mention judgment and taste; they spotlight ‘decision-making.’ They don’t show great paintings and architecture; they display simulation of the natural world.”

When you get down to it, this “skills-based” mindset isn’t innovative at all. It merely reflects the conviction that acquisition of knowledge isn’t as important as becoming a so-called “critical thinker.” I have always wondered how you can be a discerning thinker about content of which you are totally ignorant.

According to an article in L.A. Biz, the name “Imbellus” derives from the Latin imbellis for a breed of betta fish that do not swim in schools. Ah, but there are other Latin-to-English translations, among them “unwarlike,” “cowardly,” “weak,” and “feeble.” Moreover, a related Latin word is imbecillus. Will this low-knowledge, high-skills version of testing come to be known as imbecilic? Or, with Silicon Valley’s backing, will it become the next big thing in U.S. education?

One wouldn’t have to think too “critically” to realize that the answer to both questions could be yes.

[Originally Published in Real Clear Education]