Critical Thinking Assessment for Academic and Career Success

Critical Thinking Assessment for Academic and Career Success

Critical Thinking Assessments — A Critical Component of Preparing Students for Success in College and the Workplace

A growing trend among employers is their need for candidates to have strong higher-order skills, including critical thinking, problem solving, and written communication. This means that K–12 schools and higher education institutions should be helping students develop these skills while they attend school so they are prepared for the future.

Critical thinking assessments are one component in helping students develop these higher-order skills. Critical thinking assessments identify students’ strengths and areas for improvement. This information helps educators provide tailored instruction to help students grow and become proficient with future-ready skills.

Why Should Educational Institutions Use Critical Thinking Skills Assessments?

OECDThere is a growing gap between the qualifications students acquire at colleges and universities around the world and the skills employers are seeking. Often known as “soft skills” or “higher-order skills,” they include things like critical thinking, communication, problem solving, adaptability, resilience, and flexibility. 

A global survey conducted by McKinsey in 2020 found that 90% of executives and managers either already saw skills gaps in their organizations or expected those gaps to develop soon. A six-year international research study conducted by the Council for Aid to Education (CAE) and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that 60% of students entering colleges and universities are not proficient in higher-order skills and 44% of exiting students are still not proficient. Yet, these skills are predictive of positive future outcomes in terms of employment for graduates. This worrying trend is becoming a severe issue in many countries, compromising productivity, growth, and even the success of businesses. In that same McKinsey study, nine out of ten executives and managers said that workforce skills gaps are, or will soon be, a risk to the success of their organization.

Which skills are students lacking?

Literacy and critical thinking skills that include problem solving, analytic reasoning, and communication topped the list of skills college graduates haven’t developed — which means high school graduates haven’t built these essential skills either. Companies prioritize these skills, along with decision making, leadership, adaptability, and continuous learning.

Why are these skills so important?

Content knowledge alone is not sufficient for job candidates in today’s workforce. The job market is constantly evolving and, as a result, new careers are emerging that require a different set of skills than traditional jobs. A 2021 study by Gartner estimated that 33% of the skills listed in a typical job description in 2017 were almost obsolete by 2021.  

Careers of the future are likely to require a combination of technical and higher-order skills including creativity, critical thinking, communication, and adaptability.

Research shows that students who have developed higher-order skills are more likely to have: 

Can schools measure and teach critical thinking skills?

The good news is that higher-order skills can be measured and taught. “Assessing and Developing Critical-Thinking Skills in Higher Education”, published in the European Journal of Education Study, shared key findings of the international study conducted by CAE and OECD including that it is feasible to reliably and validly measure higher-order skills in a cross-cultural context and that assessment of these skills is necessary for colleges and universities to ensure that their programs are graduating students with the skills needed for career success after graduation. 

120,000 students from higher education institutions in six different countries — Chile, Finland, Italy, Mexico, the UK, and the US — were administered CAE’s Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA+) between 2015 and 2020. This performance-based assessment is designed to measure proficiency with critical thinking, problem solving, and written communication. Analysis of the data show that students entering a higher education program on average performed at the Developing mastery level of the test while exiting students on average performed at the Proficient mastery level. The amount of growth is relatively small (d = 0.10), but significant. 

How Our Critical Thinking Assessment Works

CAE’s performance-based critical thinking assessments authentically measure the essential academic and career readiness skills of critical thinking, problem solving, and effective written communication, The assessments situate students in real-world scenarios that require the application of critical thinking, problem-solving, and written communication skills. Using supplied reference materials, students must organize information, define the problem, address issues, consider and evaluate solutions, and recommend and defend a course of action.

Student scores reflect a range of plausible and effective response strategies — a process that, by design, mimics real-world, decision environments.

Assessment types

CAE’s suite of performance-based assessments include the College and Career Readiness Assessment (CCRA+) for secondary education and the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA+) for higher education. These assessments measure student proficiency in critical thinking, problem solving, and written communication — skills that are predictive of positive academic and career success. 

How schools, educators, and students can use the data

The resulting data can be used for formative and summative purposes, including evaluating how well students have developed essential skills at the beginning and/or end of a particular class or academic year, or to measure growth over multiple years.

Detailed student and institution-level reports can be used to:

  • Identify individual student and institution-wide mastery of essential skills.
  • Evaluate how your students compare to peers in your institution and across CAE’s extensive data set.
  • Measure the effectiveness of specific curriculum, interventions, and programs. 
  • Provide evidence-based microcredentials that showcase to colleges and employers proficiency with higher-order skills, including critical thinking

Additional materials and support

In addition to performance-based critical thinking skills assessments, CAE offers instructional materials, practice models, and professional development that give educators the tools and data needed to develop courses, programs, and supports to improve their students’ higher-order skills and prepare them for success after graduation.

Evidence-based tools

Our critical thinking assessment tools are based on over 20 years of research and use and are aligned to current assessment models, peer-reviewed research, and educational best practices. Read more about the research behind our critical thinking assessment here.



Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School Works to Develop Students’ Essential Learning Skills with Support from CAE

Mays Business School (MBS) realized they weren’t teaching students the skills most in-demand by employers so in the fall of 2021 launched a program to strengthen these essential skills.

Students’ skills are assessed using CLA+ and CAE has worked with MBS faculty to provide critical thinking instruction to students.

Critical Thinking Assessment Samples

Multiple choice assessments can gauge students’ content knowledge but aren’t able to identify proficiency with the foundational skills that are essential to students’ college and career success — critical thinking, problem solving, and written communication. The performance-based CCRA+ and CLA+ critical thinking assessments provide insightful, nuanced evidence of students’ competencies in these areas so they can work to develop essential higher-order skills.

Take a look at these sample performance-based assessments to see how they place students in real-world scenarios and ask them to use these skills to recommend a solution.

CCRA+ — For Grades 6–12

Sample Middle School Assessment

Sample CCRA+ Assessment — Middle School

Sample High School Assessment

Sample CCRA+ Assessment — High School

CLA+ — For Higher Education

Sample Higher Education Assessment

Actionable Data and Reports

CAE critical thinking assessment data and reports provide actionable insights into students’ areas of strength and opportunities for growth so instruction, programs, and supports can be implemented accordingly to help students develop these essential skills.

Educators can use the data-rich reports to:

  • Provide instruction to build students’ critical thinking skills using CAE’s or a similar curricula
  • Advise and provide guidance on attaining career goals
  • Demonstrate student outcomes and success to hiring organizations through micro-credentials

Our student reports show each individual student’s strengths and opportunities for development and growth with essential skills. This data can be used as a roadmap to guide students in which skills they need to prioritize developing so they are able to achieve their future pursuits and goals.

Our institution reports provide an overview of a school or district’s scores and how they compare to CAE’s US normed sample. Educators can use this data to evaluate the specific skills and subskills that would benefit from additional development and better prepare your students for their futures. 

Sample CCRA+ Student and Institution
Reports—For Secondary Schools

CAE Student and Institution Reports

Sample CLA+ Student and Institution Reports
—For Higher Education

Learn more about our Secondary and Higher Education critical thinking assessments. Then, schedule a time to chat with us about how CAE can help you equitably prepare students for postsecondary success.

Benefits of Our Critical Thinking Assessment

Effective solution to build students’ higher-order skills

CAE provides all the tools needed to help students build the higher-order skills they need in the workplace and in life. Our critical thinking assessments identify student strengths and opportunities for improvement in critical thinking, problem solving, and written communication. Detailed reports provide clear guidance and actionable next steps to help students develop the essential skills they will need during their academic journeys and career paths. We also provide professional development for educators to ensure they have the knowledge and support they need to teach students effectively.

Higher-order skills proficiency

CAE’s critical thinking skills assessments help students become proficient in the skills they need to succeed in college and their careers. They help students learn how to analyze problems systematically and logically, understand the connection between ideas, re-evaluate their beliefs based on facts, and be curious about the world. Our assessments also help students build confidence and resilience, articulate their thoughts, ideas, and opinions, and effectively communicate with diverse audiences.

Increased employability

Your students’ success doesn’t end at graduation — it’s only the beginning. Students who are proficient in higher-order skills are more employable and they are prepared for their careers and lifelong learning. These skills also help students be more productive and efficient in their work — characteristics that are in high demand by employers.

Learn more about our Secondary and Higher Education critical thinking assessments. Then, schedule a time to chat with us about how CAE can help you equitably prepare students for postsecondary success.