CAE Study Shows Essential College and Career Readiness Skills Can Be Effectively Assessed Across Higher Ed Fields of Study


Nonprofit found graduating students’ field of study had no significant interaction with an assessment of their critical thinking, problem solving and written communication skills

NEW YORK, May 17, 2022 – The  Council for Aid to Education, Inc. (CAE), a nonprofit organization whose mission is to support students’ academic and career success, today released new research that showed students from different fields of study, such as the humanities or STEM, do not perform better or worse on various versions of an assessment of critical thinking, problem solving and written communication skills. The findings demonstrate that these skills, which are predictive of academic success and in high demand by today’s employers, can be measured using carefully designed and developed performance-based assessments without great concern for the interaction a student’s field of study has on their results.

CAE’s Doris Zahner, Ph.D., chief academic officer; Olivia Cortellini, senior reporting and data analyst; and Tess Dawber, Ph.D., senior measurement scientist, authored the study, “Assessing Students’ Differential Performance of Critical Thinking and Written Communication Skills Across Fields of Study,” and recently presented the findings at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA), the world’s largest gathering of education researchers. 

The research comprised 44,191 graduating seniors from 263 four-year public and private U.S. institutions across five primary academic field of studies: sciences and engineering, social sciences, business, helping/services and humanities and languages. The students participated in CAE’s Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA+) between fall 2013 and spring 2018. CLA+ is an authentic performance-based assessment of critical thinking, problem solving, and written communication skills, which includes a 60-minute performance task and a 30-minute set of 25 selected-response questions.

“Several previous studies have shown the role these essential skills play in a student’s success across all fields of study,” said Cortellini. “The results from our research suggest that a student’s primary field of study does not have a significant impact on our ability to effectively assess their skills through performance tasks, confirming a 2012 study by Bradley and Steedle with similar findings.”

While most students (approximately 80%) consider themselves proficient in the essential college and career skills of critical thinking, problem solving, and written communication, the percentage of employers who rated recent graduates as proficient in these skills differs greatly: 56% for critical thinking/problem solving and 42% for communication (National Association of Colleges and Employers, 2018).

“In addition to content knowledge, we must be certain students are learning these higher order skills, which are rarely explicitly taught,” said Cortellini. “These skills are relevant to every field of study, so it is critical for us to ensure there is a domain-agnostic assessment that works for all students. By assessing these skills early in students’ academic journeys and providing targeted developmental support based on assessment results, educators can improve students’ academic and career outcomes.”

To view the AERA conference presentation, visit CAE’s  website

About CAE
A nonprofit organization whose mission is to improve student outcomes, CAE develops performance-based and custom assessments that authentically measure students’ essential college and career readiness skills and identify opportunities for student growth. CAE’s Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA+) for higher education, College and Career Readiness Assessment (CCRA+) for secondary education, and the Success Skills Assessment (SSA+) for any level, evaluate the skills educational institutions and employers demand most: critical thinking, problem solving and effective written communication. Based on CAE’s research, these skills are predictive of positive academic and career outcomes. CAE also partners with its clients to design innovative performance assessments that measure the constructs vital to students, educators, and institutions, including subject area and grade specific assessments. Since 2002, more than 800,000 students at over 1,300 secondary and higher education institutions globally have completed CAE’s assessments. To learn more, please visit  www.cae.org.

eCampus News Staff