Students Breathe Easier as CUNY’s Proficiency Exam Bites the Dust


Standardized tests are sort of like monsters. Students fear them. They gobble up vast quantities of materials. And when they’re killed, everyone cheers.

This year at the City University of New York, trustees, faculty, and students alike will be rejoicing at the demise of the CUNY Proficiency Exam (CPE), a three-hour writing and quantitative reasoning test that for the past decade all CUNY undergraduates have been required to pass in order to graduate. The test was slayed, quietly, by a vote of the school’s board of trustees in November, two months after a task force it had commissioned to assess the test estimated that in 2010, administering it would cost CUNY $4.92 million, equivalent to the annual salaries of 80 full-time faculty members. The task force added that it “could find no evidence that the quality of writing by CUNY students as measured by the CPE has actually improved in recent years.”

Though many students had grumbled about the test, for most it was little more than a brief, if irritating, rite of passage: According to the CPE Task Force, 94 percent of students passed within three years. But for the remaining 6 percent—which campus liaisons for the test say included many non-native English speakers, students enrolled in technical degree programs, and older students—the CPE was a formidable hurdle, sometimes holding students back from receiving their degrees for years, if not for good.

The CPE was introduced in 2001, in the wake of public attacks on CUNY by Mayor Rudy Giuliani, whose special task force on the school system criticized its “loose and confused” academic standards and students’ poor writing. It was an unusual measure, as few public university systems administer certification exams at the midpoint of a student’s college career.

“The faculty protested vigorously,” recalls College of Staten Island faculty member and University Faculty Senate chair Sandi Cooper, who says she and her colleagues viewed the test as a check on the quality of their teaching. “There were testimonies, there were op-ed pieces, there were protests outside of board-of-trustees meetings. There was a lot of name-calling. It was pretty nasty.”

Blandon Casenave, a Hunter College alumnus who protested the introduction of the CPE, recalls, “Many of us felt that this was a way the board and the mayor were using to weed out the people who were less fortunate and made it in, and were pursuing an education amidst other things that we knew they were dealing with, like raising children.”

Ever since, students have flooded into the testing offices of their colleges each semester to pick up their “advance reading”—often an excerpt from a popular book by such authors as Michael Pollan or Oliver Sacks—to read and take notes on in the weeks before the test. On test day, students were given two hours to write an analytical essay drawing connections between the advance reading and a shorter reading provided that day, plus one hour for a quantitative reasoning section that asked them to evaluate several claims in a brief text and explain whether they were supported by accompanying data (for example: “The claim ‘Derek Jeter batted .353 in 1999’ is not supported by figure 1, which shows that in 1999, Derek Jeter batted .349”).

For Candida Almanzar, a 44-year-old originally from the Dominican Republic who has been pursuing her CUNY degree for more than a decade, this proved an insurmountable obstacle. Almanzar ultimately took the CPE seven times over three years while attending Hostos Community College and Lehman College, attending preparation workshops and hiring a private tutor. (Disclosure: The author has worked as a CPE workshop leader at Lehman College, where Almanzar attended two of the author’s workshops.)

Her trouble, Almanzar says, was that when comparing the two readings, she “tried to find out what the connection is, but sometimes I don’t think there’s any connection.” Like many students who say they don’t test well, Almanzar also complains about writing under pressure. “When I have time and can analyze, I can do better,” she says. “And also, when I have time to review and correct the mistakes and do again, I think it’s better.”

Almanzar first began working toward her associate’s degree at CUNY in 1990, but withdrew in order to dedicate herself to an evangelical church she had joined. In 1998, she returned to Hostos and completed all but two classes toward an associate’s in gerontology. In 2000, however, CUNY instituted placement tests called the ACT Skills Tests that students were required to pass in order to exit remedial course work. Almanzar passed the ACT reading and math tests but failed the writing test, which had become a prerequisite for enrolling in her two remaining classes. (Last year, the ACT Skills Tests were replaced by the CUNY Assessment Tests, which serve the same function.) Discouraged, she left Hostos again.

In 2001, Almanzar was hired as a recreation assistant at Amsterdam Nursing Home in Harlem, on the condition that she eventually obtain her associate’s degree. Fearing that she would never pass the ACT or the newly instituted CPE, Almanzar attempted to continue her studies at two different private colleges in the Bronx, attending Touro College and Mercy College for a semester each. She took out a loan and spent more than $5,000 out of pocket for tuition before deciding she could not afford to work toward a degree at a private college.

In 2006, Almanzar’s supervisor informed her that, unless she received her degree soon, her hours would be cut. She returned to Hostos to take ACT workshops and finally passed the ACT in 2007, but then failed the CPE. In 2008 she completed her final two classes, and in 2009 transferred to Lehman to pursue her B.A. But in the meantime, the nursing home hired a CUNY graduate, and Almanzar’s hours were reduced from 30 to 25 hours per week. Almanzar found another job, but, due to budget cuts, lost that position and returned to Amsterdam to work as a nurse’s aide, a position that she says pays $600 per month less than her old job.

Last fall, barred from receiving financial aid from Lehman because of her CPE results—students who fail the test multiple times are shifted to non-matriculated status—Almanzar dedicated herself to preparing to take the test once again. Most mornings, she pulled out a copy of the advance reading, an excerpt from literary critic Stanley Fish’s 2008 book, Save the World on Your Own Time, as soon as she boarded the Bx22 bus, highlighting sentences, making notes in the margins, and looking up words in her pocket American Heritage dictionary. On October 21, Almanzar entered a crowded testing room at Lehman, as did thousands of students across CUNY campuses, and took the CPE for the seventh time.

Though Almanzar didn’t know it then, the CPE’s fate was already all but sealed. In an October 7 memo to the CUNY community, provost Alexandra Logue promised to “put a committee together to identify a different test to assess student learning at CUNY,” promising that it would look for a test that “allows measurement of the value added by a CUNY education”—in other words, a test that would measure what and how much students learn while at CUNY.

Faculty members who served on the CUNY Proficiency Examination Task Force say the school system is likely to adopt the College Learning Assessment, a test created by the Council for Aid to Education, a think tank chaired by CUNY’s board chair, Benno Schmidt. The CLA is designed to test a small sample of students—perhaps 200 first-year students and 200 seniors—and use the results to draw conclusions about student learning at the college as a whole.

The CPE and the CLA “were designed for very different purposes,” says Peter Ewell, vice president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems and an expert on college testing. Whereas the CPE was instituted as a way of “guaranteeing a student has gotten above a minimum level,” he says, the CLA, because it takes such a small sample, can’t serve this function. It’s used instead as a way to measure the quality of a university’s programs and how they shape students’ learning.

Ewell notes that CUNY’s decision to rescind the CPE—popular as it may be with faculty and students—carries some risk. “The price that is paid for not having something like this is that you don’t have as much public credibility that the guaranteed amount of learning is taking place,” he says. Still, he says the decision to eliminate the test doesn’t surprise him: “It’s rare that these things really last a long time.”

With the CPE no longer a hurdle, Almanzar is set to finally receive her associate’s degree from Hostos in June. If she takes courses during the summer and winter terms, as she plans to, she’ll be able to graduate from Lehman with a B.S. in recreation education in just a year and a half. By the time a new test is instituted, Almanzar will be finished with CUNY.

Though she feels that the CPE should never have been a graduation requirement, she acknowledges that her years of trying to pass the exam helped her learn how to read and analyze articles. Without a hint of resentment, she says: “I think I can make it. I can do it finally.”