National Standard to Replace the CPE

The CUNY Proficiency Exam (CPE), administered by the University for a decade to assess students’ readiness for college work, has “outlived its usefulness” and has been scrapped as a degree requirement. Chancellor Matthew Goldstein said the CPE should be replaced with nationally normed assessment tools that more accurately gauge what students know, allowing CUNY to “join the national conversation” on learning outcomes.

The Board of Trustees on Nov. 22 voted to discontinue the CPE — which had been given to CUNY’s rising juniors since 2000 to gauge their readiness for third- and fourth-year work. The action took effect immediately, and past, present and future students will no longer be required to pass or have passed the exam in order to receive their degrees.

“We have so improved as a university, I don’t think it’s necessary to have the CPE anymore,” the chancellor said in his report to the Board of Trustees in September, saying the CUNY-only exam was redundant with other measures of learning such as grades; could not be used to compare CUNY student achievement with that of college students elsewhere; and is very expensive — $5 million annually — to develop and prepare every year.

The elimination of the CPE means that students who were dismissed from a college solely based on CPE performance, or students currently enrolled as nondegree due to four or more failures/absences on the exam, may readmit or resume matriculated status. The CPE is to be removed from any degree audit program. The CPE pass and pass with distinction — but not failures — will remain as part of student records and transcripts.

“The CPE served a valuable purpose at one stage of CUNY’s development,” said Executive Vice Chancellor and University Provost Alexandra Logue in an Oct. 27 memorandum explaining the decision to discontinue the exam. “It helped to spur many forms of writing instruction at the CUNY colleges and also enhanced instruction in quantitative reasoning. Such programs and forms of academic support are now firmly in place at CUNY. Further, 10 years of experience with the CPE have shown that nearly all students who maintain a 2.0 grade point average pass the CPE, making the test redundant as a means of certification.”

Chancellor Goldstein said the results of the CPE were so highly correlated with grades “that one could say that grades should be a surrogate for the CPE exam.” He added that “the CPE is not indexed, it’s not benchmarked, it doesn’t have the psychometric purity that an exam which would be normed to other peers would have, and I think that’s something that should be a concern after so long a life span.”

There has been heightened interest in the importance of assessment of college learning since 2006, when the U.S. Department of Education’s Spellings Commission on the Future of Higher Education issued a report proposing, among other things, a national college and university database that could include assessments of student progress at individual institutions.

“We need to participate not only in a discussion of these matters, we need to participate in a national database so we understand how our students are doing,” Chancellor Goldstein said recently. But with the CPE, he said, there was “nothing to compare the data to” since the exam was “not nationally normed.”

The CPE was developed by CUNY faculty and assessment personnel as part of a package of measures aimed at demonstrating strengthened academic standards and accountability for student learning. At the time, the University was moving associate degree programs and remediation out of the senior colleges and needed an extra measure beyond grades to assess whether CUNY students were ready for upper-level college work. For the past decade all CUNY students — with the exception of students and transfer students who can demonstrate proficiency through SAT, ACT, Regents and other measures — have been required to take the exam, which includes sections on reading and interpreting textbooks and other material; organizing and presenting ideas about the readings and connecting them to other information or concepts; writing clearly and effectively; and interpreting and evaluating material presented in charts and graphs. The overwhelming majority of students taking the exam, passed.

Because the CPE is unique to CUNY, Executive Vice Chancellor Logue said in her memo, “we cannot use the assessment results to join the national conversation on learning outcomes. Equally importantly, we cannot use the CPE to measure learning gains, because the test is designed to be taken at only one point in time. Finally, the CPE has become very expensive to administer. The costs of test development cannot be shared with other institutions because only CUNY gives this test.”

“We are now a mature institution given that we have worked so hard, all of us, to bring the academic integrity of the institution up to where it is today,” Chancellor Goldstein said. CUNY should “not be fearful of looking at a variety of tests that really show … that they’re psychometrically pure, that they rise to the standard of reliability, that they actually measure what we expect them to measure.

“We ought to know,” he added, “what students know when they come in and what students learn when they leave.”