A testing time
BOSTON GLOBE-- EDITORIAL
PLIGHT of Wilfredo Laboy, the highly regarded
superintendent of schools in Lawrence who has not passed a
basic English literacy test, should serve as a lesson to
state and local officials as they use state-mandated tests
to take jobs away from teachers who have been in
classrooms for years but are still not fluent in English.
Just as the state is giving Laboy every chance to pass his
test, districts owe the teachers the same opportunity. Two
different kinds of tests are at issue here. Laboy, who has
led the troubled Lawrence schools since 2000, is trying to
pass the literacy test required of all teachers and
administrators in Massachusetts since 1998. Laboy is well
spoken in English and says he has passed the reading part
of the test, but Spanish is his first language, and he has
failed the written part three times.
The test that has stymied many of the state's bilingual
education teachers is a measure of both written literacy
and spoken fluency. The English immersion ballot question
passed by the voters last fall requires that teachers
working with non-English-speaking students be both
literate and fluent -- a reasonable standard, especially
now that the method of instruction for most English
learners is to be immersion.
Districts can decide who is to be tested and how. Most
are choosing a test approved by the state Department of
Education that requires teachers to answer questions from
an examiner for 20 minutes.
The test can be given either by telephone or face to
face, which is more expensive. Some teachers say they find
the telephone version unnerving and have asked for
face-to-face exams. Districts should provide that option
and allow teachers who fail to be retested -- just as
Laboy has had several opportunities to pass his test. Most
important, districts should offer teachers intensive
personal tutoring in English fluency. During the test
preparation time, districts should seek to find work for
the teachers, though not at the head of a class. Teachers
who speak only English while leading immersion classes
could certainly use aides who speak the students'
All of these efforts are worth the trouble for the same
reason that Laboy deserves the fair chance he is being
given -- until Dec. 31 -- to pass the literacy test.
Whatever Laboy's shortcomings in written English, he is
considered a first-rate leader of the Lawrence schools. By
the same token, many of the former bilingual ed teachers
now being fired for stumbling in a 20-minute phone call
might also have much to offer a district's students.
The test that matters most begins in September, when
districts have to be prepared for the switch from the
traditional bilingual model -- in which liberal use is
made of the students' foreign language -- to English
immersion. If districts try to staff immersion classes
with English-speaking teachers lacking skills in English
as a second language, the districts will fail this test --
and their students.
This story ran on page A18 of the
Boston Globe on 8/6/2003.
Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.