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Leaders back school chief who failed test
Boston Globe
By Anand Vaishnav, Globe Staff, and Michele Kurtz, Globe Correspondent

Governor Mitt Romney and state education leaders lined up yesterday to defend the Lawrence school superintendent, who is leading one of the state's most troubled school systems despite having failed a state-mandated writing test for educators three times.

Quizzed about Lawrence Superintendent Wilfredo T. Laboy at a news conference yesterday, Romney said it is more important for teachers to pass an English fluency test required under the state's new English immersion law than for superintendents to pass the five-year-old licensing test Laboy failed.

''I'm not sure the superintendent of schools is in the same level of importance to me in terms of English skills as are the teachers in the classroom teaching our kids,'' said Romney, who touted his support of the English immersion ballot question in his race for governor last fall.
''We ought to give the person a chance to prepare for it and take the test. I have confidence in his ability ultimately to take and pass the test.''

State Board of Education chairman James A. Peyser also voiced confidence that Laboy, a native of Puerto Rico whose first language is Spanish, would pass the communication and literacy skills test required since 1998 for anyone seeking a license to be a teacher or administrator in the Bay State. But Peyser set a December deadline for doing so. ''As a practical matter, this can't go on beyond the end of
the calendar year,'' said Peyser, who is also Romney's education adviser.Laboy, an outspoken schools chief, was a member of the governor's transition team and was hired in 2000 to lead the Lawrence schools.

Earlier this summer, Laboy placed 20 teachers on unpaid leave because they did not pass the new, separate English-language fluency test. They and dozens of other teachers around the state may be fired if they do not pass a retest by the state's Aug. 15 deadline. Romney's remarks drew angry responses from leaders of the state's two teachers unions, who blasted him for what they called a double standard. They
said it was unfair for state officials to espouse tough accountability rules for teachers to speak English and for students to pass the MCAS exam, but not for Laboy.

''So classroom teachers should have higher standards than the superintendent?'' said Kathleen A. Kelley, president of the Massachusetts Federation of Teachers. ''I think it's totally inconsistent with what the governor has said in the past and somewhat ludicrous to say the chief operating officer of the school system should have less of a standard than classroom teachers.''

Kelley also questioned why the state allows uncertified teachers who have not passed the literacy test to receive waivers to stay in the classroom, but certified teachers who have failed the English fluency test cannot. A Lowell Superior Court judge is scheduled to hear a preliminary injunction Thursday to block the state from using the English fluency test to fire teachers, a move sought by four Lowell public school teachers.

State Education Commissioner David P. Driscoll, who helped hire Laboy, said in a telephone interview early yesterday that he is willing to give Laboy the time he needs to pass the literacy test, just as teachers who fail can take the exam repeatedly. But Department of Education spokeswoman Kimberly A. Beck said yesterday evening that officials would abide by Peyser's December deadline.

Laboy, who has been credited with making some progress in one of the state's lowest-achieving school districts, last week received a 3 percent pay raise to boost his salary to more than $156,000.

The 13,800-student Lawrence public schools, which have a history of financial scandals and low achievement, operate just short of being under state control. Since 1998, the state Board of Education has monitored the city's schools, giving advice for budget and personnel issues and appointing the superintendent. In 2000, the board hired Laboy, then an assistant superintendent in Brooklyn, N.Y.

It remained unclear yesterday whether Laboy was told specifically that he would have to pass the literacy test in order to be a superintendent in Massachusetts. Beck said there was an ''informal understanding'' that Laboy would take the test. But Peyser, who oversaw Laboy's hiring, said some of the ''procedural mechanics may have fallen through the cracks.''

Since 1998, a prospective teacher in a Massachusetts public school has been required to pass a communication and literacy skills test and a test in the subject the person wants to teach. Anyone who wants to become an administrator must also take the literacy test.

They can take the exams as many times as they want, but if they fail, they must seek a waiver from the Department of Education to stay employed.

Although Laboy has been allowed to stay on the job, he has not received a waiver from the Department of Education, Beck said. She said he is the only sitting superintendent who has not passed the test.

Laboy did not return telephone calls yesterday. In an interview with The Eagle-Tribune of Lawrence, which first reported Laboy's problems with the exam, he called the test ''stupid'' and said it is irrelevant to his work. He told the newspaper that he passed the reading section of the communications test the second time, but has failed the writing part three times. The next tests are Sept. 13 and Nov. 22, according to the Department of Education website.

Lawrence Mayor Michael J. Sullivan, who also chairs the School Committee, said yesterday that he backs Laboy ''every step of the way.'' But Lawrence School Committee member Amy C. McGovern said that Laboy erred in not telling the committee after his first year that he still had not made it over that hurdle.

''I think it was a detail that was overlooked for one reason or another. And that is not acceptable,'' said McGovern, who was elected after Laboy was hired.

The section of the test Laboy failed requires test-takers to transcribe a passage read over an audiotape, an exercise that gauges spelling, punctuation, and grammar. The writing test also poses an essay question (such as whether the federal gasoline tax should be raised) and asks test-takers to rewrite error-filled sentences in proper form.

In the last test administration in May, about 32 percent of the 3,246 test-takers failed. But failure rates were higher -- about 83 percent -- for the 368 people who took the test again.

Parent Juan Gabriel, who has two children at Lawrence High School, said through a translator that he was upset that Laboy has placed on leave teachers who couldn't pass the new English fluency test, particularly given Laboy's own performance on the educator licensure exam.

''Laboy has taken the exam three times, but he doesn't give the same opportunity to the teachers,'' said Gabriel, a native of the Dominican Republic who moved to Lawrence six years ago.

Globe correspondent Brendan McCarthy contributed to this report.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 8/5/2003. Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.