September 1, 2004 | CUNY Matters Columns
Since 2001, 17 of our colleges have been administering what we call the CUNY Proficiency Exam, or CPE. All undergraduates are required to pass this comprehensive test before they can start their third year at our senior colleges or graduate from our community colleges. The University has developed this test as a form of quality assurance, not only to ensure that our students are ready to take the next step in their higher education, but also to make sure that we are providing the best possible instruction for our students.
Created by a CUNY faculty committee with assistance from two nationally recognized testing organizations–ETS and ACT–the CPE tests a range of practical skills, such as the ability to write clearly, logically and correctly for an audience. Passing the CPE, which is given to students who have earned at least 45 credits, also requires the ability to think critically about ideas and information in print and to connect those ideas to other concepts. Understanding and evaluating material presented in charts and graphs and presenting ideas effectively are emphasized as well.
The CPE focuses on these skills not only because they’re vital to the completion of degree programs, but also because companies and agencies that employ CUNY graduates consistently tell us that proficiency in these areas is crucially important to success on the job. Most importantly, the ability to think logically and critically, and express those abilities both verbally and in writing, are invaluable skills that will help our students throughout their lives.
Our students spend two or more years preparing for the CPE and most pass it the first time they take it. The University and the colleges have developed an extensive array of academic interventions to assist students in preparing for it. Those who don’t pass it are not abandoned. We continue to help them strengthen their skills and encourage them to try again.
As of this writing over 83,000 students have taken the CPE. Of the students who took the exam for the first time in the spring of 2003, 92 percent have passed, though not all on their first attempt.
At CUNY we’re finding that the CPE has become an agent of change. As expected, the exam has generated productive discussions across the campuses, discussions related to expectations for general education and Writing Across the Curriculum initiatives. The unavoidable necessity of passing this test consequently has sparked a variety of curriculum reforms and a productive focus on writing. Faculty members require students to display higher levels of literacy and analytical thinking, not only in freshman composition but also throughout the University’s curricula. By guiding the development of the tests themselves, the faculty are able to give priority to the concepts and skills that years of experience have shown them to be crucially important.
The CPE may come as a surprise to those who remember the CUNY of 30 years ago. Open admissions–and the lower academic standards that went with it–was a well-intentioned effort to create opportunity that might otherwise have remained unavailable. But it sent a devastating message all the way down to grammar school: whether you study or not, CUNY will accept you.
Those days are gone. While strengthening CUNY’s role as a place of opportunity for immigrants and first generation college students–half of New York City’s college students are enrolled in a CUNY college–we have returned to CUNY’s cherished tradition of a valued degree. Today the CPE is helping send another message to prospective students: if you want to attend a CUNY college, study hard and learn. After all, many of the professions for which CUNY prepares its students require a certification exam, including nursing, accounting, teaching, the law and many more. Using testing to demonstrate an understanding of complex material is hardly isolated to the classroom.
Education is not a sprint–it’s a marathon. To complete such a long and demanding challenge, you must begin training at the earliest possible moment. CUNY’s message to high school and college students alike is that the need for thinking skills never ends. The CPE, and its use as a measure of quality assurance within CUNY, places the University at the leading edge of national efforts to re-examine and redefine educational assessment.
The real test is life. The sooner we help young people prepare for this test the brighter their future will be.