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PCUSA Tackling Low Bible Test Scores Among Seminary Students

PCUSA Tackling Low Bible Test Scores Among Seminary Students

The national office for the mainline denomination Presbyterian Church (USA), located in Louisville, Kentucky. | (Photo: Courtesy of PCUSA)

The Presbyterian Church (USA) is looking into ways to handle an apparent drop in satisfactory rates in Bible test scores among people preparing for ministry within the Mainline denomination.

Earlier this month, a task force created by the executive committee of the Committee on Theological Education released a statement on the Bible Content Examinations and a trend of lower than average evaluation rates that began in the summer of 2015.

The task force recommended that candidates take the BCE after a they've had a full year of education in theology, that the COTE convene a group of scholars to create a study guide for the BCE and other resources for the BCE, and that the questions be released following their use in the exam.

The Rev. Timothy B. Cargal, assistant stated clerk for preparation for ministry in the PCUSA Office of the General Assembly, told The Christian Post that the issue was less about lower scores and more specifically about lower "satisfactory rates."

"Because a satisfactory evaluation requires a score of 70 percent or higher and the median scores fell below that level in summer 2015 and winter 2016, majorities of those who took the BCE during those administrations did not receive satisfactory evaluations," explained Cargal.

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The Holy Bible, NIV | (Photo: The Christian Post)

"For the summer 2016 and winter 2017 BCE administrations, the median scores were within satisfactory range, and so majorities of those taking those administrations did satisfy the requirement, though the majorities remained below levels typically seen in the recent past."

Cargal also told CP that he believed the "precipitating factor" for the lower satisfactory rates was the Presbyteries' Cooperative Committee on Examinations for Candidates' decision to quit using questions from past exams that were publicly released before 2009.

"The BCE has always and continues to use some questions from previous exams as a means for working toward a similar overall difficulty of the test from one administration to the next," continued Cargal.

"When publicly available questions were discontinued in summer 2015, the advantage of advance access to a portion of the questions on the test was removed."

Cargal added, "the task force concluded that in their view the overall mix of questions on the four most recent exams were more difficult than the overall mix of questions on a sample of previous BCEs from prior to the retirement of publicly available questions."

Bible Content Examinations are machine-scorable tests that people pursuing ministry with the PCUSA take in order to determine a person's overall knowledge of the Bible.

BCE's are used both to determine ministry candidates' biblical literacy and to assist seminary faculty in developing courses meant to help educate in any areas of scriptural weakness.

Questions come in the formats of multiple choice, matching, and ordering, with the items covering a broad selection of topics from the Bible.

Questions can include a short quoted passage from the Bible and then ask the test-taker to determine which book it came from, offering four options to choose from.

Other questions may ask context, providing the book and chapter for the passage, but then asking to what or who the quoted passage was referring to.

Carmen Fowler LaBerge, president of the Presbyterian Lay Committee, told CP that she took the BCE 25 years ago as a student at Princeton Theological Seminary.

"It was multiple choice and a high percentage of questions were drawn from prior years. We were coached to study those exams in preparation for the BCE. That made the exam easy to pass," said LaBerge.

LaBerge also told CP that she thought the reason for the decline in satisfactory rates was twofold: "the test has gotten harder and the candidates' knowledge of the content of the Bible has declined."

"The task force is trying to solve an internal examination problem when the deeper issue is those preparing to pastor PCUSA churches don't resonate with Psalm 119. They are not hungering, thirsting, aching nor yearning to know the Word of God nor to have their lives conformed to it," added LaBerge.

The task force's report on the BCE will next go before the PCC, which will formally receive and give feedback to the recommendations at its annual meeting, which begins in late March.

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