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Black Colleges Seek To Boost Test Skills

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Threatened by the high failure rates of their students on national basic-skills tests, nine predominantly black education schools are implementing a new program to better prepare those students for the types of questions found on the standardized tests.

The nine schools are all in states that now require teacher candidates to pass the National Teacher Examination (nte) before they are given teaching licenses. Failure rates for blacks on the test have been as high as 80 percent in some teacher-education programs, said Eva Galambos of the Southern Regional Education Board, the interstate advisory group that proposed, and will sponsor, the program.

The nte has been adopted by seven states, and many more are considering using it in an effort to upgrade the quality of their public-school teachers, said Ms. Galambos. Five other states are using similar teacher-certification tests.

Some educators, pointing to the high proportion of blacks and Hispanics failing the tests, say they fear such testing will significantly reduce the number of minority teachers in public schools. They also argue that the testing programs threaten the future existence of the nation's approximately 100 predominantly black education schools.

Florida and Alabama have recently passed laws linking state approval of teacher-education programs to the performance of their graduates on basic-skills tests like the nte Florida requires that at least 80 percent of the graduates of education programs pass the state's test within a year; if they do not maintain that standard, the programs could lose accreditation.

Such actions by the states are endangering programs whose students currently fare poorly on the standardized measures of competence, said Willie T. Howard, dean of Howard University's education school. "If they put a score on who's going to become a teacher, then that will certainly impact on the education schools," he said. In every state that now requires such tests, graduates of traditionally black education schools consistantly have scored lower than their white counterparts.

Until now, the typical test that students take at the black schools has involved "recall" questions that require memorization only, said Vernon G. Gettone, dean of the education school at South Carolina State College. But the nte questions require "analytical-reasoning skills," he said, which many students are not prepared for.

Under the terms of the proposed plan , faculty members at each school will draft questions that they think are analytical and will send them to the sreb--each school may send up to 150 questions in five major subjects [mathematics, social studies, writing, science, and literature-fine arts], Ms. Galambos said.

An expert hired by the sreb will work with the questions this summer, revising and eliminating those that are not analytical, and will add 300 new ones. The expert will most likely come from the Educational Testing Service, which developed and administers the nte; a contract for the consultant is being negotiated now, said Ms. Galambos.

Each school will receive a total of 1,500 analytical questions for faculty members to use in course examinations next fall. Faculty members will also receive copies of their questions, as revised by the consultant.

"It's a learning experience for teachers," Ms. Galambos said. "They'll see how their questions have changed."

Tests like the nte create a problem for many black students because ''they don't know how to handle analytical questions," said William C. Brown, director of the sreb It is essential for black students to have more exposure to these questions before they get to the na-tional examinations, he said.

The training proposal was described recently by Mr. Gettone at a conference of black education-school officials on "Problems, Issues, Plans, and Strategies Related to the Preparation and Survival of Black Public School Teachers." The conference, which has been sponsored for the last four years by the school of education at Norfolk State University to support officials' efforts to strengthen their programs, this year focused in particular on the growing trend among states to link approval of education schools to performance on basic skills tests, according to Mr. Howard.

Officials familiar with current practices at colleges of education said they were not aware of any other program like that being undertaken by the sreb and the black education schools. "I've never heard of this approach," said Virginia Koehler, an assistant director in the teaching and learning division at the National Institute of Education.

Clyde Aveilhe, a spokesman at the Educational Testing Service, said he did not know of other groups of education schools that were similarly addressing the problem.

Mr. Aveilhe warned that the plan could have some disadvantages. Faculty members could become "too reliant" on the pool of questions for their tests, he said. "They need to know how to construct good exams; there's a relationship between good exams and effective teaching."

Mr. Aveilhe also noted that good test questions will not help if the problem is the students' lack of training in basic skills. "If teachers aren't teaching the basic skills, the exams are not going to make any significant difference," he said.

Participating colleges are: Benedict College, S.C.; Bennett College, N.C.; Hampton Institute, Va.; Jackson State University, Miss.; Norfolk State University, Va.; North Carolina Central University; South Carolina State College; Southern University A&M College, La.; and Grambling State University, La.

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