Braille Monitor                                                                                 January 2006

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National Literary Braille Competency Test:
New Partnerships, New Possibilities

by Barbara Pierce

As Monitor readers know, the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) has been working for a decade to develop a test to determine whether teachers of blind children or other adults have truly mastered the Braille code. What readers may not know is that the NLS has now asked the National Federation of the Blind to finish development of the National Literary Braille Competency Test and take on the certification of those who demonstrate a real command of the code. Dr. Fred Schroeder, a respected educator in the blindness field and member of the NFB board of directors, and Mark Riccobono, director of education for the Jernigan Institute, have been working with a committee of experts to complete development of the test and set up a certification system. The process has been long and fraught with setbacks, yet we can now say that the promise of a national test to measure the knowledge of teachers and others may actually be closer than we have dared to believe.

For many years the National Federation of the Blind has been working to expand opportunities for blind children and adults to become fully literate in Braille reading and writing. We recognize that Braille is more than a reading medium; it is symbolic of the ability of blind people to live normal, productive lives. It is a tangible expression of our equality, and it affirms the legitimacy of the alternative techniques that allow us to live and work alongside the sighted as equals. It is our gateway to literacy and our gateway to the dignity and self-respect that literacy brings. Of course there are other methods for obtaining information, but none of them can replace Braille. Yet the struggle to increase the Braille literacy of blind people has been long and hard.

The formal education of blind children in America began in the mid 1800’s with the establishment of segregated residential schools for the blind. For the next century virtually all blind children attended schools for the blind, where they received a reasonably comprehensive education. In schools for the blind Braille was a given; it was assumed that, to be educated, blind children must be literate, and to be literate, they must learn to read and write Braille. Braille was an everyday part of the blind child’s education. For the most part residential schools for the blind made textbooks and other materials available in Braille, and many of the teachers were blind people who read and wrote Braille themselves. However, in the 1960’s schools for the blind began experiencing significant overcrowding, and accordingly a large number of blind children were moved to their neighborhood public schools.

While having a practical origin—the need to address overcrowding—the move away from segregated residential school education was quickly regarded as a new and progressive model for educating blind children. The practice of placing blind children in regular public school programs (known as “mainstreaming”) was seen as an educational innovation and a move toward greater integration of blind children. Yet the effects of mainstreaming were not all good. To work, mainstreaming presumed that blind children would have the support of teachers who could provide the training in the specialized, skills they needed to succeed. Yet the reality was that large numbers of blind children found themselves in regular neighborhood schools without Braille materials or teachers who knew how to read and write Braille. This led to a sharp downturn in the Braille literacy of blind children in America.

At the same time leaders in the education of blind children began stressing greater use of residual vision, emphasizing large print and magnification for blind children who had even very small amounts of remaining sight. School districts, faced with a nation-wide shortage of trained teachers, seized on using vision as a way of coping with the shortage. This lead to a crisis in Braille literacy among blind children throughout the nation. In response the National Federation of the Blind, the nation’s largest organization of blind people, began working to insure that blind children would have access to Braille instruction and would not be forced to use print simply because the school system did not have a trained teacher at hand.

In 1987 the National Federation of the Blind introduced the first so-called Braille bill in a state legislature. The bill, introduced in Minnesota, called for a presumption of Braille as the primary reading medium for legally blind children. The idea was to affirm the right of blind children to receive instruction appropriate to their needs. Although we eventually obtained some form of Braille legislation in thirty-two states, we knew we needed to insure the right of Braille instruction for all blind children throughout the nation. In 1997 the Federation was successful in amending the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to include a presumption of Braille for blind children in federal law. Much had been accomplished, but much remained to be done.

We knew that a legal right to receive Braille training meant nothing if there were no teachers to provide the instruction. In March of 1989 the National Federation of the Blind raised its concerns about the decline in Braille literacy with the newly founded Joint Organizational Effort (JOE) Committee. After considerable discussion, the JOE Committee agreed to ask the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) of the Library of Congress to develop a test that would assess teachers’ knowledge of the Braille code. For over sixty years the NLS has certified Braille transcribers and proofreaders. It had the experience and credibility to develop a test that would be regarded as professional, thorough, and fair.

The NLS’s Braille Development Section immediately began work on the test. An advisory committee composed of educators, rehabilitation teachers, transcribers, and consumers was established to study the feasibility of developing a test of Braille competency. They decided that the test would not attempt to measure the individual’s ability to teach Braille but instead would measure only knowledge of the Braille code. Universities would continue to address Braille teaching methods as a part of their teacher-preparation programs. Knowledge of the Braille code was not the only factor affecting the competent teaching of Braille, but it was the foundation. The National Literary Braille Competency Test was made available for general use in 1994. Over the next ten years approximately 475 tests were administered. Concurrent with its release the National Literary Braille Competency Test was scheduled to undergo validation. The issue of test validity became important since many states wanted to use the test in conjunction with their teacher-certification processes. As a result a validation, a reliability study of the current test, was begun by HumRRO (Human Research Resources Organization) in 1998.

As part of the validation phase of the study, HumRRO recommended that the content of the test be revised but that the basic organization of the test elements remain the same—writing with a slate and stylus, writing with a Braillewriter, proofreading, and answering a series of multiple choice questions. The next step was to make the needed changes and get the test ready for general use. Two advisory committees were formed: the Test Development Committee and the Administrative Issues Committee. Each committee had staff from NLS and APH (American Printing House for the Blind) as well as representatives of the blindness community.

Everything seemed to be on track. Thirty candidates were scheduled to take two versions of the pilot test. Each test would be evaluated by a team from APH and a team from NLS. Unfortunately, just as all seemed to be nearing completion, a major snag developed. Some actual test materials were sent out by NLS instead of sample tests to one group of candidates scheduled to take the pilot test. When the error was discovered, test candidates were contacted. Several of the tests had been opened, and most test items had been seen by one or more people. This compromised the validation of the test. According to HumRRO the basic structure of the test was sound, but because the test had been seen, new passages and items would have to be written before work could continue.

After a decade of work on the test, it looked like the project would never be finished. In late 2004 Mr. Frank Kurt Cylke, director of the NLS, together with Dr. Tuck Tinsley, president of APH, came to the National Center for the Blind to seek the Federation’s help in completing work on the development of the National Literary Braille Competency Test. Essentially NLS asked that the National Federation of the Blind finish the project and assume the role of serving as the certifying body. It seemed that we had come full circle. The Federation had first raised the need for a Braille competency test with the JOE Committee, which in turn asked NLS to develop the test. Now NLS was asking the Federation to take over the work and complete the development of the test and put together a structure for test administration and certification.

President Maurer agreed that the Federation would take on the challenge. In the spring of 2005 the Federation convened a meeting of experts in Braille to enlist their help. The group (now known as the steering committee) includes individuals with significant background in technical aspects of the Braille code, Braille production, and teacher preparation. Equally important, they are all deeply committed to Braille. The names of the steering committee members will be familiar to many: Dr. Fredric K. Schroeder, research professor at San Diego State University, and Dr. Diane P. Wormsley, program director of the Professional Preparation Program for Teachers of Children and Youth with Visual and Multiple Disabilities at the Pennsylvania College of Optometry, serve as co-chairs of the steering committee. Committee members represent either certain organizations participating in the NLBCT effort or particular perspectives as individual professionals who contribute significantly to the field. Members are Mary Archer, president of the National Braille Association; Dr. Sheila Amato, teacher of blind children and teacher educator; Kim Charlson, chair, Braille Authority of North America, and designated representative for the Council of Schools for the Blind; Dr. Judith Dixon, acting head of Braille Development, National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped; Dr. David Ross, president, Division on Visual Impairments of the Council for Exceptional Children; Lisa Wright, vision/low incidence specialist, Division of Special Education and Early Intervention Services, Maryland State Department of Education; and Ramona Walhof, National Federation of the Blind. In addition the steering committee receives guidance and support from NLBCT project manager Mark Riccobono, director of education for the NFB Jernigan Institute. Finally, the committee also receives consultation from the staff of HumRRO company, the test developer.

The steering committee has held a number of meetings over the past several months and has made good progress toward completing development of the National Literary Braille Competency Test. A series of pilot tests will be given in the spring of 2006, and the Federation hopes to begin offering certification by next summer.

The National Braille Association, a well-respected organization of Braille transcribers, will assist in the administration and scoring of the test.

At long last we are at the threshold of changing the dream of a Braille competency test into reality. One of the most encouraging developments has been the response from the blindness field. In particular professionals running teacher-training programs have expressed a strong interest in using the test to measure the level of proficiency of their students and comparing it to the proficiency of students from other teacher-training programs. The steering committee is actively seeking the involvement of additional university training programs to expand the pool of individuals taking the test. This will allow for a better assessment of training materials and curricula and will provide an important tool for strengthening the Braille preparation of future teachers. Blind children will be the winners, and so will we all—blind adults and society generally. Soon we will have a measurable way of telling how well a teacher knows the Braille code. We will not yet know if he or she is an effective teacher, but we will know if a teacher can read and write Braille. As work on the National Literary Braille Competency Test continues, information will be made available on the NFB’s Web site. To learn more, go to <http://www.nfb.org/ nfbji/nlbct.htm>.

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