PCC Responds to September 2016 BCE

At a previously scheduled meeting on September 8-9, 2016, the Executive Committee of the Presbyteries’ Cooperative Committee on Examinations for Candidates (PCC) had extended discussion about the results of the most recent Bible Content Examination (BCE). The following is their response to concerns about the exam from across the church, issued with the concurrence of the full PCC:

As part of its regularly scheduled fall meeting, members of the Executive Committee of the Presbyteries’ Cooperative Committee on Examinations for Candidates (PCC) gave extended time and discussion to reviewing the results of the September 2, 2016, Bible Content Examination (BCE) along with concerns about recent changes to the test expressed both formally and informally from across the church.

Foremost among the comments being received is a request to return to the practice prior to 2009 of publicly releasing all questions utilized in BCE administrations. The reasons for this request are many and varied, and the members of the PCC have given them serious consideration. The Executive Committee after this deliberation has decided to maintain its current policy of not releasing questions, a policy which has been in place for the past seven years.

In reaching this decision, the Executive Committee believes it is important to recall that criticism of the BCE did not begin with the dramatic change in results when publicly available questions from pre-2009 exams were “retired” from inclusion in BCE administrations beginning in the summer of 2015. For many years, the BCE had been criticized as being an exercise in memorizing “Bible trivia” rather than a useful tool in assessing biblical literacy among inquirers in the preparation for ministry process with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). There was wide agreement that a major contributor to this perception of the BCE was a broad consensus that the way to prepare for the exam was to memorize as many questions from past exams as possible in the hopes that one would encounter a sufficient number of repeated questions in taking the test to receive the 70% score necessary to satisfy the requirement. Neither inquirers nor the presbytery committees overseeing their preparation tended to focus on anything except that result, since considerable effort would have been required to review the questions returned to test takers along with their answer sheets to discern any patterns among missed questions.

For these reasons, when the PCC moved to online administration of the BCE in the fall of 2009 and other options for reporting results became possible, the committee ended the practice of releasing all the questions and instead provides a report to the inquirers and their respective presbyteries and seminaries that identifies the portions of the canon and specific biblical passages for questions that they answered incorrectly. The point is to focus on the pattern showing which portions of scripture and to a degree which books within those canonical divisions were less familiar to the inquirer so as to identify areas which would benefit from more focused study, both for those who scored high enough to satisfy the requirement and for those whose scores would require repeating the test.

So why not release the question text itself rather than just the biblical passages? Well, as already mentioned, that practice had created the conditions where the primary focus of preparation was not the Bible itself and resources that help a person gain proficiency in its stories, themes, and key passages (the areas of assessment as established by the General Assembly), but rather on the questions from previous exams. Editors of each BCE administration utilize questions from earlier exams with levels of difficulty established by how many test takers answered them correctly. The goal is to achieve some balance in overall difficulty from one BCE to the next. As long as questions that will be re-used are released, people will focus on those questions rather than the scriptures from which those questions were drawn.

It is also important to note that in adopting this approach the PCC is following evolving practice among other professional associations that give tests to assess competency in core areas of knowledge within their fields. A current member of the PCC reported to the committee that a similar situation in the Pathology Board Exam required reworking of that testing system. The Board routinely reused 50% of the exam from the previous cycle with new questions for the remainder of the exam. Over time, the common practice was to recall as many of the questions as possible, compile them, and then make them available to the residents taking the exams in the following years.  Test takers are now required to affirm that they will not compile such question troves, with penalties if they have been found to do so. In similar fashion, those taking the BCE are now required to affirm an honor statement that they also will not disclose the content of questions in the test.

The PCC does all of its work, including administration of the BCE, on behalf of the broader church. It regularly participates in self-study for and review by the General Assembly, most recently just this summer by the 222nd (2016) General Assembly. There have been, however, some calls in response to the results on the last three BCE administrations for a more focused review of those exams. Because the PCC is deeply invested in creating the best possible examinations that measure what they are supposed to measure, we are more than willing to have the previous exams reviewed.  To that end, the Executive Committee approved a motion at our meeting this past week asking the Committee on Theological Education to assist in performing an independent, confidential review of the recent exams in order to provide feedback to the PCC on the suitability of the questions in relation to the stated goals and purposes of the exam. The Executive Committee of COTE will be asked at their meeting later this month to nominate up to four persons to form a task group to review the past three BCE’s, as well as two exams from the time period when exam questions were publicly available.  Michelle Bartel, Coordinator for Theological Education and Seminary Relations for COTE will convene and chair this task group; Tim Cargal, Assistant Stated Clerk for Preparation for Ministry and PC(USA) staff resource for the PCC will resource the task group; and, Kathy Riley, Bible Task Group Moderator, and Ken Broman-Fulks, PCC moderator, will be present to observe the process and report its feedback to the PCC.  We look forward to hearing from this task group and considering their feedback on the exams.

Specific strategies for preparing to take the BCE are available in the Exams Handbook (http://www.pcusa.org/exams ) and in a brief video entitled “Understanding and Preparing for the Bible Content Examination” available on the denominational website (go to http://www.pcusa.org/prep4min and click “Online Training Opportunities” in the left-column menu options).

The PCC remains committed to fulfilling the General Assembly’s mandate to provide a standard ordination exam assessing inquirers’ knowledge of the stories, themes, and key passages of the scriptures and to supporting the preparation by those taking that test. We are convinced that a solid foundation in the biblical tradition is essential for those who engage in ministry within the context of the Reformed tradition, and we are certain that view is shared by all those who are concerned about the Bible Content Exam.

by Tim Cargal, Preparation for Ministry

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