What happens when teachers fail the test
A superintendent's failure to pass a competency exam, three times, renews
debate about accountability push.
The Christian Science Monitor
August 15, 2003 edition
By Amanda Paulson | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
For Wilfredo Laboy, the news that he had failed one of Massachusetts'
required literacy exams for educators - for the third year in a row - came at a
particularly bad time.
By one of those weird confluences of events that give the news a tinge of humor,
the state's poorest-performing district learned of its
superintendent's failure the same summer the first Massachusetts seniors were
denied diplomas for failing a high-stakes test. The same
summer Mr. Laboy put 24 bilingual education teachers on unpaid leave for failing
to pass an English fluency exam, while the Lawrence,
Mass., school committee raised his salary to $156,560.
His plight became a punch line for Rush Limbaugh and agenda-pushing columnists
last week, while the governor
and state education commissioner - both ardent supporters of testing - rushed to
But the facts are more complicated than a talk-show one-liner. Laboy is, by all
accounts, literate, articulate, and competent. He has implemented needed changes
in a struggling district. English is his second language, and the test section
he failed involves correctly
spelling and punctuating arcane bits of dictation.
The situation may not be so much about how a superintendent could fail an exam,
but whether such an exam is a useful measuring tool - and what happens when
those charged with raising standards are forced to live up to them.
"There seems to be an assumption among a lot of policy makers and decision
makers that the test is always right," says Joseph Pedulla, director of the
Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation, and Educational Policy at Boston
College. "We in the business know that's not the case, that tests are fallible."
That those who know Laboy have been quick to support him isn't surprising, says
Mr. Pedulla. Teachers often defend students who fail
the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS. "If you're sitting
in the statehouse, you don't know those kids, so it's not real to you. But
clearly here there's some personal knowledge, which starts to contradict the
In the past decade or so, the push to test educators has spread almost as
quickly as the mania for testing students. Reports of teachers who barely knew
their subject fueled demands that they face standards just as their students do.
Almost every state now requires testing for new teachers, and a few - such as
Texas - have had even mid-career teachers prove themselves on exams.
In Massachusetts, the exam Laboy failed is part of a series of tests required of
new teachers since 1998. The first time aspiring teachers took the tests, only
41 percent of them passed. Educators and some officials protested, claiming the
tests were irrelevant or too hard, but others say they are what's needed to weed
out unqualified teachers.
Paul Reville, director of the Center for Education Research and Policy at
MassInc, a nonpartisan think tank in Boston, reviewed many of the written
responses from those who failed the test. Having "people who were college
graduates and yet couldn't string a sentence together was of deep concern," he
As for Laboy, Mr. Reville says he knows the superintendent and admires some of
the changes he's brought to Lawrence. The fact that
a clearly literate man failed the literacy test raises some questions about its
validity, he says, but "since we have that requirement, it's
imperative that he meet it whether it's relevant to his job or not."
Teachers in his district agree with his logic. It's not that they think Laboy is
illiterate, says Stephen Crawford, a spokesman for the
Massachusetts Federation of Teachers. It's that they want the rules to be fair.
Since Laboy was hired from New York three years ago he has failed the test three
times. State officials have given him until December to pass it, but said they
wouldn't immediately replace him if he fails. A ballot decision to get rid of
bi- lingual education, meanwhile, is
requiring all teachers to meet a fluency requirement by summer's end.
"We'd like to see [the teachers who haven't passed] get additional tutoring,
additional chances to pass the test, and be permitted to
work in the school system while they work toward this," says Mr. Crawford,
noting Laboy could have done all those things but instead
suspended the teachers without pay. (Laboy didn't return Monitor phone calls.)
Laboy didn't make the teachers any happier with his recent comments. "I'm trying
to understand the congruence of what I do here every day and this stupid test,"
he told the local paper.
But critics of testing say they could hardly have put it better themselves.
"He's right. And the ability to pass standardized tests has little to do with
how well teachers teach and students learn," says Alfie Kohn,
author of "Schools our Children Deserve." "The question is why people understand
the limits of standardized tests when they themselves become the victims of it,
with curious lack of empathy for victims other than themselves."
In fact, the Laboy situation is just one of several recent instances that have
made testing critics a bit gleeful. Bob Schaeffer, public
education director of FairTest in Cambridge, Mass., points to the recently
released federal ratings of schools. Only 14 percent of
Florida's schools met the federal standards, even though more than half those
schools received an "A" grade just a few months ago by
Gov. Jeb Bush. And in New York, teachers certified years ago by a now-defunct
city board are fighting a requirement that they go back and take the state's
All three cases show "how subjective and political the entire game of attempting
to evaluate educational quality on the basis of test scores is," says Mr.
Schaeffer. Like most critics of high-stakes tests, he says he's not against high
standards - just the idea that competency can be determined by a single test.
He cites one young man who wanted to be a music teacher in Massachusetts. He had
graduated from the prestigious Berklee College of Music, was a composer, a
conductor, and a skilled musician, and yet was denied a job because he couldn't
pass the dictation section of the Massachusetts exam.
Schaeffer's proposed solution: Start requiring competency tests for two
professions other than teachers: state legislators and journalists.
Then, he laughs, "everybody would be on our side."