Salem State University Department of Foreign Languages Honored
By Nicole Sherf, department of foreign languages
Schools and colleges are recognized by outside agencies for their adherence to nationally accepted standards for facilities, offerings and student achievement. The process of seeking this recognition is called accreditation. Accreditation is a tedious but necessary component of school life. It involves the creation by the school administration and faculty of a portfolio of evidence which documents how well the school and various departments meet the required standards. You may be familiar with the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), the regional accrediting body whose mission is the establishment and maintenance of high standards for all levels of education from pre-K to the doctoral level. This accreditation process occurs through self-reflection, peer review and documentation of best practices in the effort to achieve school and program improvement over the accreditation cycles.
Although Salem State University holds this NEASC accreditation, its Spanish teacher preparation program has recently undergone review for a different kind of accreditation through the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) and its affiliated national professional organizations. And we are happy to announce that we have just received word that our graduate and undergraduate programs have, in fact, received national recognition from NCATE and the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). SSU is one of just seven institutions in the state listed on the NCATE Website to have this prestigious label, though not all of them hold the foreign language-specific accreditation.
Why, you ask, might Salem State want this honor? The SSU program coordinators were curious about this. In particular, we wondered whether the label mattered to the people who hire our program completers. We found out through an electronic survey of district administrators that it does. North Shore district administrators reported that the NCATE label tells them that we have held our students to rigorous nationally recognized standards of pedagogical and content preparation.
ACTFL sets the content related standards for national recognition of Spanish teacher preparation programs through NCATE. ACTFL, in cooperation with NCATE, developed a list of six content standards for which Salem State’s Spanish education program had to develop from six to eight tasks or evidences with accompanying rubrics that would demonstrate teacher candidates’ mastery of the standards through the courses in the program. The content standards represent the “knowledge, skills and dispositions” expected of a foreign language teacher preparation program completer and include, 1) language, linguistics and comparisons, 2) cultures, literatures and cross-disciplinary concepts, 3) language acquisition theories and instructional practices, 4) integration of standards into curriculum and instruction, 5) assessment of languages and cultures and 6) professionalism.
Sample evidences or tasks are provided by ACTFL to model the types of activities that demonstrate proficiency in the standards, and there are even a few mandatory elements. The most interesting evidence for the department was the one mandating that program completers attain at least a score of Advanced Low on an official ACTFL Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI). (The required score is Intermediate High for students of non-Roman alphabet languages.) This was also the most challenging requirement for us to implement. We teach our language courses at Salem State in the target language and encourage our students to interact, present and interpret information within an authentic cultural context. But it is one thing to say that you do these things, and another thing entirely to prove it through a nationally recognized proficiency test that describes exactly what types of tasks we have prepared our students to complete in the language as a result of our coursework and program.
We have worked together as a department to meet or exceed these national standards. But we are seeking to improve all our programs not just the teacher preparation ones. To that end, we have developed target proficiency levels for various stages of programming, we have begun to strongly recommend study abroad for students in all levels of programming, and we have begun to discuss as a department the class level activities that lead to higher proficiency across the levels. The Foreign Language Department discussion has been rewarding. If you’d like more information on the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines, I urge you to download the newly updated version (2012) here: http://actflproficiencyguidelines2012.org/. Also, over the past few years, we have begun using a similar test to the ACTFL mandated Oral Proficiency Interview called the STAMP test which measure how well students perform in the skills of speaking, listening, reading and writing and uses the same level parameters as the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines. We have established points in the various programs where all students will be tested so that we can ensure that we are meeting these rigorous standards for proficiency for all of our students, not just our teacher candidates. You can check out more information about this great proficiency tool at http://www.avantassessment.com/stamp .
High standards are necessary. We will all agree that foreign language program completers and foreign language teacher candidates should be highly proficient in the language that they studied. But it is difficult for students to attain this high level of proficiency, especially at the undergraduate level. Our department’s continued focus on this important issue compliments the well rounded programming that we offer which includes study abroad possibilities, community service internships and a capstone thesis.