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New test aims to benchmark skills of U.S. college graduates

By Daniel Lovering

BOSTON (Reuters) - Seniors returning to classes at dozens of U.S. colleges and universities have one more hurdle to prepare for this school year: a new standardized test for graduating students intended to give prospective employers a measure of their abilities.

Called Collegiate Learning Assessment Plus (CLA+), the test aims to provide a more objective way to compare the intellectual achievements of graduates of different schools.

"It's another set of information that employers can use to review the applicant," said Robert Keeley, director of assessment services at the Council for Aid to Education, the New York-based nonprofit that has developed the test. "We're looking to equip students to share their scores more readily than they have in the past."

About 200 colleges and universities, including small liberal arts colleges Ursuline College of Pepper Pike, Ohio, and Stonehill College of Easton, Massachusetts as well as some of the California and Texas state university systems, have signed up to give the CLA+ tests at the end of the academic year now getting underway.

The test will measure analysis, problem solving, writing, quantitative reasoning and reading, the Council for Aid to Education said.

It could serve a similar role to the admission exams that graduate schools rely on as a standard evaluation for their applicants.

Students will be able to incorporate the results of the CLA+ test into their resumes and have the option of sending copies of the reports to potential employers, Keeley said.

The tests could help address the problem of grade inflation, with schools awarding higher grades over the years in an effort to attract and retain students, said Michael Poliakoff, vice president of policy at the nonprofit American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

"Employers want to see something they can rely on," Poliakoff said. "They don't want to see a portfolio of things that show a candidate may or may not have done."

Poliakoff, who participated in a focus group on the test's development, said the test could help graduates demonstrate "just how valid those grades on a transcript are."

The test is being phased in at a time when U.S. officials are wrestling with the rising cost of a college education. President Barack Obama last week proposed a plan to tackle soaring U.S. education costs with a new system that judges colleges and universities on their financial value and ties those ratings to disbursement of federal aid.

The plan calls on the U.S. Department of Education to institute a ratings system before the 2015 school year that would allow students and parents to select schools based on the best value for the money.

Douglas Bennett, a Council for Aid to Education board member and emeritus professor of politics at Earlham College in Indiana, said the test showed promise.

"A dirty secret about higher education for a very long while is, we've had no particularly good ways of knowing the most important thing, and that is whether students are learning," he said. "Partly that's been because we didn't have the right, clever ideas to figure out how to do that."

(Editing by Scott Malone and Leslie Gevirtz)

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