TALLAHASSEE — As Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida Republican leaders explore alternatives to the College Board’s AP classes and tests, top state officials have been meeting with the founder of an education testing company supporters say is focused on the “great classical and Christian tradition.”
The Classic Learning Test, founded in 2015, is used primarily by private schools and home-schooling families and is rooted in the classical education model, which focuses on the “centrality of the Western tradition.”
The founder of the company, Jeremy Tate, said the test is meant to be an alternative to the College Board-administered SAT exam, which he says has become “increasingly ideological” in part because it has “censored the entire Christian-Catholic intellectual tradition” and other “thinkers in the history of Western thought.”
As DeSantis’ feud with the College Board intensified this week, Tate had several meetings in Tallahassee with Ray Rodrigues, the state university system’s chancellor, and legislators to see if the state can more broadly offer the Classic Learning Test to college-bound Florida high school students.
“We’re thrilled they like what we’re doing,” Tate said. “We’re talking to people in the administration, again, really, almost every day right now.”
Specifically, Tate said he is seeking to make the test an option for the taxpayer-funded Bright Futures Scholarship program, which rewards Florida high school students based on academic achievement. Students can use the scholarship to help pay for a Florida-based college education. Currently, the scholarship is tied to the SAT and ACT test scores.
While DeSantis has not publicly singled out the Classic Learning Test as an alternative to the College Board’s SAT, he has said he wants to seek out “other vendors” who can do it “better” than the SAT. A top education official in his administration has indicated interest in the CLT test.
“Not only do we need to build anew by returning to the foundations of our democracy, but CLT also offers the opportunity for all our colleges & universities to rightsize their priorities,” Florida Department of Education Senior Chancellor Henry Mack posted on Twitter on Thursday.
Mack also amplified a tweet by Chad Pecknold, a Classical Learning Test board member, that said people seeking a testing option focused on the “great classical and Christian tradition” should go with the Classical Learning Test option.
The governor’s office and the Department of Education did not respond to requests for comment regarding Mack’s tweets. DeSantis’ office also did not respond when asked whether Classical Learning Test was being considered as an option.
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Rodrigues confirmed in a text message Friday that he met with Classical Learning Test executives this week because he wanted to learn more about their product.
“As you know the State University System is the largest university system in the country that still requires an entrance exam as part of our admissions process. We currently accept SAT and ACT,” Rodrigues said. “Adding another option for our students could be a method of improvement.”
The option would not be coming out of nowhere. In recent months, national conservative groups have called on governors to make state university admissions and state-funded scholarship programs accept the Classical Learning Test exam to make the schools “more charter and home-school friendly.”
“Many governors champion school choice. Those same governors should champion their state’s colleges and universities including the Classic Learning Test as an equal option to the SAT and ACT,” Kevin Roberts, a Classical Learning Test board member and president of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, wrote in a public “memo to governors” in November.
“Which governor will lead?” asked Roberts.
Reshaping education, one step at a time
DeSantis, who is eyeing a run for president in 2024, has been reshaping Florida’s education system by aggressively targeting what he calls a “woke ideology” and “indoctrination” in K-12 schools and higher education institutions.
This year, he has largely turned his focus on the higher education system, proposing the elimination of diversity, equity and inclusion programs and mandating courses in Western civilization, a focus of the classical education model.
Classical Learning Test will be hosting a Florida Classical Education Summit on March 10 at Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, one of its partner colleges. The event includes sessions titled “Florida: A Case Study in Education Freedom,” “The Power of Parental Choice & Why Parents are Choosing Classical Education” and “Testing Discussion: The Role of Assessments in K-12,” among others.
While Tate admits conservatives are more likely to gravitate toward the Classic Learning Test — and that the company’s long list of advisers includes influential conservatives that have DeSantis’ ear — he asserted, “We don’t want to be a Trumpy or conservative test.”
Tate, whose background was in SAT and ACT prep classes, has also publicly argued that the solution to “mainstream” education is giving parents an education alternative to “left-wing indoctrination.”
Florida House Speaker Paul Renner was asked by DeSantis to look at alternatives to the College Board. In a statement this week, he said the goal is to look at providers who are focused on “delivering high-quality and fact-based education, not indoctrination.”
Tate also told the Herald that Rodrigues was “very positive” when discussing expanding access to his test in Florida.
“We spent time looking through the test together, and he said it seems to fit, in terms of what they’re looking for,” Tate said.
How the tests compare
Roughly 200 largely faith-based schools across the country accept the assessment. Ten of them are in Florida, including Stetson University, Ave Maria University, Reformation Bible College, Palm Beach Atlantic University, Pensacola Christian College and Trinity Baptist College.
According to the Classical Learning Test’s website, the two-hour online assessment includes three sections: Verbal reasoning, grammar and writing, and quantitative reasoning. It costs $54, a dollar less than the SAT. The test scores vary for the ACT, SAT and CLT. For example, the highest score for the CLT is 120; for the SAT it is 1,600 and for the ACT it is 36.
The company says its test exists to “reconnect knowledge and virtue by providing meaningful assessment and connections to seekers of truth, goodness, and beauty.”
Erika Donalds, an avid school choice proponent and the wife of Republican Rep. Byron Donalds of Naples, says the main difference between the tests is that the Classic Learning Test refers to classic literature and historical texts and the SAT and ACT follow “the Common Core route,” which includes nonfiction texts.
More broadly, however, she said there’s been a growing mistrust toward the SAT and AP courses, arguing the “SAT and the ACT are not very transparent.”
“As parents, we don’t get to see the questions,” Donalds said. “So I have a greater trust in reliability in CLT because I know the values behind that organization and what they stand for.”
Erika Donalds, founder of the Optima Foundation, a network of classical charter schools in Florida with close ties to Hillsdale College in MIchigan, said she’s been asking for an alternative to the College Board exam since the “anti-common core movement” began around 2009.
“We don’t feel like the SAT necessarily tells certain colleges what they would like to know about our graduates and what they know and how well they can read and comprehend historical texts and classical literature,” she said.
For Scott Marion, executive director of the Center for Assessment, a nonprofit that helps states design and evaluate tests, the CLT brings its own set of questions, such as how a relatively new test will stand up to a diverse pool of students compared to the more widely available SAT and ACT, and whether higher education institutions outside of Florida will accept it.
In addition, Marion said, college admission departments may not want to change their process too much.
“It could be fine for Florida schools, but what about the kids who want to go out of state?” he asked. Officials “have to know that the other colleges will take the test.”
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