Is testing out of college “just a shortcut?”

Has anyone ever made an assumption about some part of life (your diet, wardrobe, workout routine, etc.) which they had no first-hand experience with?

I don’t know about you, but that pisses me off on a primal level. Before I have any rational thoughts, the emotional centers of my brain say “who the hell do you think you are?”

Well, this happened to me in a guest post I wrote for The Art of Manliness. A bunch of commenters wrote that students who test out don’t “really” learn anything or get the college experience. One guy (below) went so far as to say he would never hire someone who tested out of their coursework:

“An approach of testing out of college courses does not account for the collaboration, prioritization, communication, time management, and stress management skills that are required to be successful in many jobs. Such an approach also leads to shortcuts. Employers seek persons who can do tasks well and extend those well formed results to scale. These two things are not the same. I look for the values listed above in candidates and discount a candidate who illustrates the use of a shortcut instead of building efficiencies.”

Now, mind you: this person is speaking purely from assumptions. What would he know? He’s never tested out of anything. Probably never met anyone who did, either. No crime there. Most people haven’t.

That’s why DIY Degree is such a unique way to earn a degree.

Yet here is the fallacy: this man let his own ignorance of testing out become an iron-clad belief that anyone who tests out is taking a shortcut. Other commenters — most notably, those who had actually tested out of subjects themselves — chimed in with totally opposite views:

If you’re someone with the discipline and self-sufficiency to study and pass a CLEP exam, you not only have the stuff that will make you a successful college student, but a success in any other area as well. The future belongs to self-starters. People who need a machine to move them along to success, who are not self-starters, will vigorously fight against this truth and keep feeding the machine. They don’t want to think they lost thousands of dollars unnecessarily.

But as much as I’d love to say “I told you so” and close this post, I’d like to demonstrate, with logic and factual evidence, WHY testing out is more than “just a shortcut.”

Because once my rage dissipated, I realized something: if that other guy was bold enough to call testing out “just a shortcut” on someone else’s blog, a lot of my own readers might be silently wondering this to themselves. And if I’m adopting the ideas of Extreme Ownership, I have to admit: it’s my fault for not addressing it.

So today, I want to put testing out into perspective: showing that it is academically superior to traditional college in addition to merely saving you time/money.

The “Shortcut Myth”: Why Testing Out Trumps Classroom Learning

First, we need to challenge a pernicious idea: that classroom instruction from college professors is the only or best way to learn. This is the “invisible script” that drives people to defend the college system even as it deteriorates year after year. To borrow a legal phrase, however, these folks are “assuming facts not in evidence.”

Academically Adrift, a devastating critique of learning on America’s campuses, reveals a level of intellectual stagnation that is breathtaking. After tracking gains (or lack thereof) in “critical thinking and analytic reasoning” for 2,300 students at various four-year colleges and universities, the authors were appalled to discover that 45% of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” during the first two years of college and that 35% failed to demonstrate improvement over four years as well.

“How much are students actually learning in contemporary higher education? The answer for many undergraduates, we have concluded, is not much”, wrote Academically Adrift’s authors.

This is why I’m such a big supporter of self-teaching and testing out. Not only is it faster/cheaper, but you actually learn more. It allows you to measure yourself against objective criteria, rather than a teacher’s political correctness, grade inflation, favoritism, etc.

Of course, this controversial idea (that self-teaching trumps classroom learning) is not readily accepted by supporters of the college cartel.

“Sure, testing out is cheaper, but what about quality of learning?”

This is the knee-jerk criticism of teaching subjects to yourself and testing out of them at college:

“Sure it’s faster, but don’t students just cram for those tests and forget everything? You need a professor’s tutelage to master college material!”

At which point I stifle my laughter and say “surely you jest.”

Want a recipe for career suicide as an educational policy maker? Tie every state school’s funding to a comprehensive exit exam. If acing them were easy, schools would delight in the slam-dunk certainty of additional funding every year. The near-universal hatred such a proposal would receive suggests exams require deeper mastery than we think.

Entire university systems based on testing have already existed — and been eliminated — for being too challenging. Before World War II, Dutch students took comprehensive tests after years two and three of their schooling. Politicians scrapped the system after 30% of students failed to pass. Similarly, China dismantled their college entrance exams in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Ten years later the Ministry of Education restored the system after “the quality of education declined sharply” and the lack of rigor had “retarded the development of a whole generation of young people.”

Thomas Sowell, author of Inside American Education, demonstrates that America’s public schools began falling behind the rest of the developed world in the 1960’s: precisely the time when our educators stopped emphasizing rigorous examinations.

For DIY Degree students, the strongest evidence in favor of testing out came from a series of widely-ignored 2010 studies, which found:

  • Students who receive credit by examination in an introductory subject are “much more likely” to earn an A or B in subsequent courses than students who took the introductory subject in the classroom.
    Students who use credit by examination have “significantly higher GPAs” than students who don’t (even after controlling for demographics and prior achievement)
    Portfolio Learning Assessment students “tend to take more advanced courses in the subject area in which they test than non-PLA students who complete the introductory course in the same subject area.”

So not only is testing out not inferior to classroom learning, it appears to be demonstrably better than classroom learning for at least some folks. Opposition to testing is just a smokescreen behind which universities prolong the jaw-dropping failures exposed in Academically Adrift.

Now, one might counter “there is a selection bias at work here, because the people who test out are already more self-motivated” Maybe, but I don’t think that explains these study results. First, the study controlled for prior achievement. And either way, if testing out appeals mostly to self-starters (and we’re paying colleges to make us self-motivated) then that’s reason enough for giving it a try.

Data vs. Dogma: The Sad Irony of Test-Out Critics

Isn’t this sad?

The so-called “passionate supporters of education” are making unfounded and baseless assumptions about testing out, while WE (the so-called “shortcut takers”) back our strategies up with strong empirical analysis.

It’s your call, but when it comes to people calling testing out a shortcut, I say screw ’em.

Unless the employer of your dreams explicitly says “we will not hire you if you earn a degree this way” (something I have never seen or heard of) you can safely assume the person has no clue what they’re talking about.

If you want a personalized roadmap to earning your degree in 1 year or less (“shortcut” critics be damned) click here to learn more.

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