The WaPo’s Jay Matthews is the single most influential educational journalist in America, and over the years I find myself often tacking back and forth in my appreciation for his writing.   I share with him his great enthusiasm for the IB (International Baccalaureate); on the other hand, I believe his ranking schools by AP scores is problematic, and I was quite put off in 2008 and 2009 by some of his cranky (his own word-choice) criticsm of the 21st century skills movement.

But in recent months he has been terrific; in December he brought good attention to and praised an important report from Craig Jerald, Defining 21st century education,  then praised (late, but better late than never) Tony Wagner’s Global Achievement Gap,  and participated in a fascinating on-line debate with Wagner.

This month Matthews has a fun piece endorsing one of my favorites, the College and Work Readiness Assessment (CWRA), a piece which I am going to quote at some length.

“Why not take the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a new essay exam that measures analysis and critical thinking, and apply it to high schools? Some colleges give it to all of their freshmen, and then again to that class when they are seniors, and see how much value their professors at that college have added. We could do the same for high schools, with maybe a somewhat less strenuous version.”

But after I posted that idea, a young man named Chris Jackson e-mailed me that his organization had thought of it four years ago and had it up and running. Very cheeky, I thought, but also intriguing. I never thought anyone would try such a daring concept.

It turns out, not many. Jackson, project manager for the Collegiate Learning Assessment and its high school version, the College and Work Readiness Assessment, said only about 50 high schools have signed up. In the Washington area, there is just one. [Similarly in Arizona, there is just one: St. Gregory].

The 100-minute exam is done online. There are no multiple choice questions. The student is given a task, such as a memo to a company president on whether to buy a certain small private plane shortly after an accident involving that model. The student reviews news articles, a federal accident report, performance charts and other data, then writes a memo justifying a recommendation. Scorers grade for clarity, persuasiveness, balance and other factors.

At the end of the piece, Matthews addresses the concern of some schools: that their students will resist this new additional test.   Matthews, though, shares the good news that many schools are finding, news which is especially important to me today as I anticipate our own first time test-administration for our senior class tomorrow morning: “Many told him afterward that they had enjoyed an exam that made them think.”

Matthews argues that it would be best if the test results become public knowledge, for greater transparency in evaluating schools.

Few colleges using the test have released their results. High schools such as Severn have also been careful to keep the numbers to themselves. But Turner said his colleagues are working on teaching these skills. As schools get used to it, who knows what might happen? Someday, we might measure academic worth not with SAT averages but by how well each school’s students thought through a complicated problem. That might force a major change in the way we teach high school, not a minute too soon.

This last piece is so important; the greatest significance to the CWRA is not that it will simply allow us to better assess our students’ skills in critical thinking and problem solving, but more, that by clarifying and underscoring that those skills are our goals, we can work backwards and better design teaching and learning which support their development.