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At Grambling: 'Fighting the Scores Instead of the Tests'

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As the dismal record of minority teacher candidates on Louisiana's required certification exam became apparent in 1980, officials at predominantly black Grambling State University made a tough decision: to fight the low test scores, rather than the test itself.

That resolve--buttressed by program revisions, new personnel, tighter standards, outside funds, and universitywide support--has paid off handsomely, officials report. In the years immediately following the state's certification mandate, fewer than 5 percent of the school's education graduates were passing the National Teacher Examinations. Today, though far fewer Grambling students take the test, 85 percent of them pass.

And along with the new testing record have come added dividends: an improved public image, better faculty morale, and a reversal of the enrollment decline in undergraduate education courses.

"Students feel good about the pro-gram now," says Burnett Joiner, hired as dean of Grambling's college of education during the 1980 reassessment. "They know they have graduated from a program with tough standards. They know they can hold their own with anyone."

'Did Not Make Excuses'

A key factor in the turnaround, says Jack L. Gant, former Florida State University education dean and a consultant for Grambling's test-score-improvement program, was that the university "did not make any excuses."

"The university took the attitude that 'if other students can pass the test, then our students can, too-- and will,"' he says.

"That is the position you have to take," adds Mr. Joiner. "You must decide whether to spend energy fighting the exam and the system or find a way to succeed within the conditions you find yourself."

"Our strategy," explains Mr. Gant, "was to look at everything, from beginning to end, that could possibly affect student competence."

In addition to hiring a new dean of education, the school entered a protracted period of discussion and study in 1980 that eventually resulted in curricular changes, the addition of new programs, and a tightening of standards.

Grants from the U.S. Education Department "made the difference," Mr. Joiner notes, enabling the college to hire additional faculty members and buy computers and software used for remediation and instruction in test-taking skills.

And having the support of the entire university, from its president to the faculty and deans of the other colleges, was another important element, according to Mr. Gant.

To ensure that the courses Grambling students took would cover everything the test did, faculty members reviewed and revised the entire university curriculum, according to Mr. Gant, a past president of the American Association for Colleges of Teacher Education.

And other, noncurricular changes were instituted:

The faculty received intensive vice training in test development and how to better monitor student progress.

Diagnostic-testing and remediation programs were developed and put into place.

"Testwiseness" seminars designed to teach test-taking skills were introduced.

A scholarship fund supported by alumni, faculty, and "friends" of the college was created, and an aggressive recruitment campaign to attract academically capable students was launched.

College-entrance requirements and program standards were tightened.

Before 1980, Grambling's college of education had operated under what was essentially an open-admissions policy. As part of its new strategy, it requires a minimum high-school grade-point average of 2.0 and carefully monitors college-entrance-examination scores.

Students in the teacher-training program must maintain a 2.2 grade-point average and pass a battery of tests as they progress through the program.

Before entering teacher training, for example, sophomores must take the nte core battery. They take the nte professional module before advancing to student teaching and tackle the nte subject-area examination before completing the program.

Beginning next year, according to Mr. Joiner, the college will require a 2.5 grade-point average for entry--the new minimum standard set by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education--and will require that all students meet the state testing standard before graduation.

"That way," says the dean, "the students we graduate will already be eligible for certification."

The college has made a commitment, Mr. Gant adds. When it accepts students, he says, "it accepts the responsibility to make sure they are going pass the state test."

'Exciting Development'

To other predominantly black colleges, most of which confront the same test-score dilemma Grambling faced, the university's experience has offered new hope. And many of these institutions have launched similar improvement campaigns.

"This is an exciting development," says David Imig, executive director of the American Association for Colleges of Teacher Education. "Grambling's success is testimony to the fact that we can turn this picture around."

Three years ago, the Southern Regional Education Board, in conjunction with the Educational Testing Service, developer of the nte, began working with a consortium of nine historically black colleges and universities to boost the pass rate of their teacher-education graduates on state certification tests. Grambling is one of the consortium members.

The ets has helped consortium members develop a battery of 1,500 test items--similar to those included on standardized teacher-competency tests--covering coursework in the general education curriculum, according to William C. Brown, director of the sreb project.

The test items have been integrated into regular course examinations at the institutions and also added to testing programs that keep track of students' academic progress.

In addition, faculty members in both education and arts and sciences have been trained in the development of analytical and problem-solving test items similar to those appearing on the national tests. They have also been advised in curricular design, with an eye toward the inclusion of course matter covered on the tests.

Last year, the sreb selected three of the consortium members--Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., South Carolina State College in Orangeburg, and Coppin State College in Baltimore--to serve as "demonstration centers" for other colleges struggling to improve test scores.

Supported by a grant from the U.S. Education Department's Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education, the centers allow visiting faculty members to observe successful programs and attend workshops on such topics as curriculum and test development, and student assessment.

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