Braille Monitor                                                    July 2008

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Keeping Our Promises
Braille Competency Test Now a Reality

by Louise Walch

From the Editor: Louise Walch is the National Certification in Literary Braille (NCLB) coordinator employed by the National Professional Blindness Certification Board. In the following article she summarizes the evolution of the effort to acknowledge and certificate those who demonstrate their competence to read, write, and teach Braille.

During the 1990s leaders in the blindness field urged the National Library Service (NLS) to create a test to measure expertise in dealing with the literary Braille code and to validate the results of the tests of those who took it. The NLS developed that test but became bogged down during the validation process. In 2005 they handed the project over to the National Federation of the Blind, who updated, pilot-tested, and completed validation of the test’s content. We also conducted some pilot tests. The NFB then sought an entity to manage the ongoing administration of the test because we were not interested in supervising test administration permanently, so in 2007 the National Blindness Professional Certification Board took over the effort and is now conducting the tests for those interested in achieving this gold standard of Braille Competency. So, as we said, Louise Walsh now coordinates national certification in literary Braille testing. She describes the evolution of the test and the exciting future we can all anticipate for it. This is what she says:

Louise Walch Everyone interested in the advancement of Braille literacy will be pleased to know that the long-awaited National Certification in Literary Braille (NCLB) is finally here. At times such as these, when literacy among blind people is critically low, we recognize the need to establish some minimum standard of Braille competence for teachers of the blind. The standard has now been established, the test has been devised and thoroughly piloted, and the first NCLB certificates have been awarded with the expectation of many more to come.

The process of testing and certifying literary Braille users has now been entrusted to the National Blindness Professional Certification Board (NBPCB). The test materials have been modified only slightly to reflect changes in purpose and target population. The test has not been substantially changed from its earlier version administered by the NLS. However, those who now take the test have the advantage of becoming candidates to receive the National Certification in Literary Braille (NCLB). All NCLB certificants are entitled to present their certification to employers and to list the NCLB title as part of their professional credential.

The test, sometimes known as the National Literary Braille Competency Test (NLBCT), is used to measure the level of a person’s ability to read and write contracted literary Braille. Although anyone can take the test, it is intended primarily for teachers and future teachers of Braille.

This written test is used to measure an applicant’s ability to read, write, and understand literary Braille. The examination consists of four sections:

1. Braille writing using a Braillewriter
2. Braille writing using a slate and stylus
3. Proofreading, identifying Braille errors
4. Multiple choice questions, correct usage, and rules

Those who pass all four sections of the exam receive the NCLB certification. Up to six hours are allotted to take the entire test. A typical test schedule consists of two test sections in the morning and two in the afternoon, with several scheduled breaks throughout. Test results are based solely on individual performance, and the areas covered by the test are basic knowledge in letters and numbers, contractions, punctuation, composition signs, and formatting. Grading is based on accuracy. Speed is not currently tested, except that the applicant must complete the test within the given time. Speed may be tested at some future point, but as yet no firm plans have been made.

The National Blindness Professional Certification Board was established initially to ensure that professionals working in the blindness field maintain high standards. To this end, the question of retesting is one to which the NBPCB has given considerable thought. Braille is like many other skills; it may erode over time if it is not being used. If a candidate were certified indefinitely, the NBPCB could not verify to employers that that person’s Braille literacy is in fact still current. Thus one change made in the interest of maintaining high standards is that all certificants will need to retake the NCLB examination every five years.

The current cost for retesting is $250, the same as for the initial test because the cost of administering the test is the same. The five-year retesting policy was established to ensure not only that candidates are competent at the time of their initial test, but that they maintain this competence throughout their professional careers. Most people would agree that this is the only responsible way to ensure that qualified instructors provide Braille literary skills to children and adults.

Notwithstanding the efficacy of Braille, recent history has seen a dramatic decrease in Braille literacy. In the mid-eighteen hundreds, when schools for the blind emerged, Braille was almost inevitably an essential component of the education of blind children. Throughout the next century or so, blind children could generally be assured a reasonable education--one which included basic literacy. At that time everyone recognized that for a blind child literacy meant reading and writing Braille. Consequently Braille was a daily component of education for children who attended residential schools for the blind.

In the 1960s education of blind students began to shift toward mainstream instruction; that is, blind children began to attend their local public schools. This came about in large part due to overcrowding in the residential schools for the blind. Simultaneously educators began thinking that blind children would do better learning in a real-world environment. This might have been true if blind children could have attended public schools and still have had sufficient access to education in alternative blindness skills. Sadly the public schools were not able to provide the necessary Braille instruction for blind children. They did not have the material resources or qualified staff to teach Braille. Consequently the literacy rate of blind children declined.

A way had to be devised to improve the literacy situation for the blind. With so few qualified Braille teachers, large print became the medium of choice for all blind children with any residual vision. In the midst of such a crisis, some literacy was better than no literacy at all. This undoubtedly served to crystallize the presumption that some sight was better than no sight. Because large print afforded some degree of literacy for those blind children who could get by using it, the visually impaired child seemed to have an advantage over the totally blind child in a Braille-starved educational environment. Thus emerged the current situation in which children who would otherwise have learned Braille now hunch awkwardly over large print. Rather than enjoying the freedom and utility that Braille affords, with magnifiers in hand they crane their necks and strain their eyes while struggling for literacy.

The apparently overlooked factor in this scenario is that Braille is the great equalizer in literacy for the blind. When a blind or visually impaired child learns Braille early and consistently, it becomes as useful to him or her as print is to the fully sighted child. Of course time and consistency are essential to effective learning. Increasing the number and quality of blindness professionals is a significant factor in improving literacy rates among blind students. While we recognize that the existence of a Braille standard will not itself produce the number and quality of teachers needed, the introduction of national certification does provide an incentive for teachers to improve their skills. Thus in the 1980s the NLS began developing the original test on the recommendation of a joint committee, which included leaders from the American Council of the Blind, the American Foundation for the Blind, the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired, the Blinded Veterans Association, the Canadian Council of the Blind, the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, the National Federation of the Blind, and The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) of the Library of Congress. For greater insight into the history and need for the test, refer to “National Literary Braille Competency Test: New Partnerships, New Possibilities” in the January 2006 issue of the Braille Monitor.

In 2005 NLS officials asked the NFB to take over leading the development of the test. In 2006 a series of pilot tests was conducted in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; St. Paul, Minnesota; and Anaheim, California. For more information on the history and development of the test, refer to “United We Stand for Braille Competency Testing: Closing the Gap between Dreams and Reality" in the Winter 2006 issue of the DVIQ and a subsequent article, “A National Test of Braille Competency Achieve: Where Do We Go from Here?” in the Winter 2007 issue of the same journal.

In March 2007 the National Blindness Professional Certification Board (NBPCB) learned that the NFB was seeking an organization to carry out fulltime administration of the test, and its officials stepped forward to assume the responsibility. The revised test is now in finished form and will be administered solely under the direction of the NBPCB. Thus the same certifying body that developed the National Orientation and Mobility Certification (NOMC) now offers the National Certification in Literary Braille (NCLB). However, unlike the NOMC, which requires additional immersion training, the only requirement for earning the NCLB Braille certification is by agreement to abide by the NBPCB Code of Professional Ethics and to pass all four sections of the certification test.

Since the changeover to the NBPCB, the first full-fledged offering of the Braille test was held in Ruston, Louisiana, on January 12, 2008. With eighteen test candidates, the first NCLB test generated more interest than anticipated. The day went off without a hitch, and throughout the following three weeks a two-member panel of scorers determined the results. Overall, candidates had the highest pass rate for the multiple choice section and the lowest pass rate for the Braillewriter section. Of the eighteen candidates, eleven passed all four sections. So 61 percent of the candidates passed on their first attempt and received their NCLB certification. A further four (22 percent) of the eighteen candidates missed only one section. Thus far two of these four have now successfully passed that section and have been awarded certification. Three (17 percent) of the eighteen candidates missed two or more sections. One of these has now retested and successfully passed all sections. This gives a total passing rate of 78 percent, with fourteen out of the original eighteen candidates earning NCLB certification. It should be noted that a new version of the test is administered to retesters. Those who have missed only one section are given the option to retest in that single section, while those who desire to retest after missing more than one section are required to retake all four sections.

A subsequent version of the NCLB test was administered in Ruston on April 26, 2008, with eight candidates, five of whom were new. The remaining three were the retesters. As stated above, all retesters passed and received certification. Of the other five, three passed all four sections on their first attempt, and the remaining two missed only one section. Thus, after combining the results of both the January and April tests, fourteen out of twenty-three (61 percent) of candidates passed all four sections on the first attempt. Six (26 percent) missed only one section on their first attempt, and only three (13 percent) missed more than one section on the first attempt. Of those who have retested, all have passed on the second attempt.

The most recent NCLB exam was held in conjunction with the 2008 NFB national convention in Dallas, Texas. Results are now being assessed, and we look forward to welcoming a new group of qualified certificants.

A number of exciting things lie ahead for the NCLB. We are working on collaborations with leaders from different states who wish to help us make this certification available far and wide. One such team effort is developing between the NBPCB and Dr. Stuart Wittenstein, superintendent of the California School for the Blind. We are beginning to make plans to offer one of our next NCLB exams in California, and we look forward to sharing such opportunities in the home states of any interested participants. NCLB examinations will be convened wherever an appropriate venue can be procured and sufficient applicant numbers make it possible. Please contact the NBPCB for more details.

With the grandfathering of twenty-three certificants from the 2006 pilot, we now have forty current NCLB certificants, and undoubtedly many more are on the way. Those who meet the criteria for the NCLB are among the best and most qualified among blindness professionals. We wholeheartedly congratulate these certificants and indeed all who work toward gaining and maintaining excellence in their Braille skills. We extend our sincere thanks to all who have diligently worked to ensure that Braille literacy is central to the education of blind children and adults. We look forward to assisting all blindness professionals to reach their goals and to enable all blind people to have the best opportunities for Braille literacy and success.

For additional information, visit the NBPCB Website at <www.nbpcb.org>, call the NBPCB office at (318) 257-4554, or contact Louise Walch, NBPCB coordinator, at <braille@nbpcb.org>.

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