How Do High-Stakes College Entrance Exams Affect the Entire Educational System?

Published November 25, 2016

We didn’t know wonder was enlivening our home until it died. 

My oldest daughter, Frances, so full of questions and curiosity, had ensured we saw the world with fresh eyes and contagious awe. But after a military move across the country in the middle of her kindergarten year, we settled into base housing. We chose a local private school and then watched in horror as our vivacious, thirsty learner stopped asking questions, stopped wondering about the world, and began focusing on Beanie Baby labels and social status. 

Beginning the Homeschool Journey

Increasingly, she regarded me less as a mother and more as a chauffeur. The only thing I knew about education was that it was not happening, though I could not articulate or understand the problem. My questions led me to consider every option, including the seemingly ridiculous notion of home education. My early inquiries into the world of homeschooling proceeded with a particular prayer running through my mind: “Please God, don’t ask me to do this.”

And then the lights came on.

What began as dread at the very thought of myself as a teacher morphed quickly into the planning stage of a great adventure. Soon I rediscovered my own love for books, bugs, and beauty, and I thrilled to see curiosity and awe stir in my sweet daughter’s gaze.

One month into first grade, in the middle of our read-aloud, I caught her looking at me with awe and amazement. I paused to hear what had inspired her reverence. With luminous eyes, she declared, “Mom, you can read really well!” In that moment, she moved me beyond chauffeur status and opened her mind and heart to whatever lessons I chose to teach.

Restoring Intellect, Relationships

This journey was restoring not only her intellect but our relationship as well. I began to understand that a good education concerns itself with right relationships: with God, self, others, the natural world, etc. During those first years of rapid discovery, I wandered to a ledge with a breathtaking view: the idea of classical education. 

Classical education became my next frontier. What do I love the most about it? It is real and satisfying. It is worthy of my trust, for it has been tested by millennia rather than one or two generations of devoted fans. The particular enduring stories, the Great Books, and the good books that train us for their coming, speak across the ages, sharing the truth about ourselves and our journey in a way that requires us to climb, harvest, peel, and taste the truth that has the power to set us free should we choose to consume it.

Effect of Entrance Exams

I am now close to the end of my homeschooling season. Many changes have altered the educational landscape. I have seen three daughters through the college application process, and I have begun to appreciate the life cycle of pre-college education in the United States. What begins in wonder with a focus on goodness and good citizenship in kindergarten ends with standardized college entrance exams whose selected texts would lead us to believe we cannot know what is good, and that truth does not exist.

Once students have accepted the idea that truth does not exist, they have been crippled in their ability to recognize and respond to the One who is Truth. The dawning of this provocative realization caused me to wonder about the nature and impact of standardized college entrance exams upon the entire educational system. 

These high-stakes tests do more than measure achievement; they drive curricula down into high schools, middle schools, and grammar schools. In steering curricula, they drastically alter what is taught.

For example, AP U.S. history courses across the nation were significantly rewritten over the summer of 2014 to align with the politically correct agenda of the new AP U.S. history exam. Test writers controlled what the most able history students of this nation would know of their own cultural inheritance. The two college entrance testing behemoths, in abandoning any claim to ethics, goodness, and truth, have emptied our educational systems of teaching that might endow students with a working moral compass.

My friend Amy asked me, “Are all these colleges and educational associations who profess allegiance to true liberal arts education going to continue measuring our children by these degraded and degrading standardized tests?” I thought, “Yes, what are they going to do? Who will stop talking and start acting?”

A Classical Alternative

Shortly thereafter, Jeremy Tate of Classic Learning Initiatives invited me to work with his team on the audacious task of creating a new standardized college entrance exam. I began to wonder anew. Can this be done? Could we do this? The great stories have taught me that those who stand against giants are not often wise by human standards, nor powerful, nor of noble birth. By these benchmarks, I find myself qualified to join the movement. Wonder has led me to my next great adventure: the Classic Learning Test (CLT). 

CLT invites students to wrestle with works created by the greatest minds in the history of the Western tradition. Rich material reflecting both theistic and secular perspectives challenges students to analyze and comprehend texts that are not just concerned with one small, narrow topic, but rather representing the scope and complexity of life, including the moral implications and the far-reaching consequences of ideas, passions, action, inaction, scientific inquiry, and love.

Ruth Popp is vice president of Classic Learning Initiatives and director of St. Thomas Aquinas Tutorial. This article was originally published by the Circe Institute and is republished with permission.