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A testing time



THE 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' language.

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.