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July 25, 2004

State cuts dictation test for teachers

From:, MA - Jul 25, 2004

Deaf applicants had complained

By Anand Vaishnav, Globe Staff | July 25, 2004

Prospective Massachusetts schoolteachers no longer will have to take dictation as part of getting their teaching certificate, sparking charges that the state Department of Education is "dumbing down" the exam.

To prove their spelling and grammar skills, people who want to teach in Massachusetts public schools have had to transcribe an audiotape recording as part of a test to attain a teaching license. But the Department of Education is dropping that part after complaints from prospective teachers who are deaf and needed sign-language interpreters.

The state, which yesterday administered the last teacher test that included dictation, decided to get rid of dictation entirely rather than make an exception for deaf test-takers.

The move has reignited the debate that surrounded the teacher test when it had its debut in 1998: What standards should Massachusetts use to judge whether a teacher is good enough for the state's public schools? Some superintendents and education professors laud the move, saying the dictation section is archaic. Others blast the state, saying the dictation requirement was a unique way to judge English skills teachers should possess, and a way to prove those abilities to parents. Last year, the superintendent for Lawrence schools drew ridicule from around the nation for his acknowledgment that he failed the test's writing portion three times, including dictation.

"This abandonment of the dictation section of the examination is, not surprisingly, a dumbing down of the requirements for prospective teachers," said John R. Silber, who helped install the dictation portion when he was chairman of the state Board of Education. "In testing of our teachers, it is important to have at least one section of the test in which there are no holds barred, a section that clearly separates the competent from the incompetent," said Silber, now the president emeritus of Boston University.

State education officials said the test remains strong. Instead of dictation, the test will use multiple-choice questions that ask applicants to find errors in passages. The questions are an equally valid way of testing grammar, spelling, and punctuation, officials said.

"This has to do with being fair to all teacher candidates," Department of Education spokeswoman Heidi B. Perlman said. "We're not making the test easier or in any way testing people on less data."

Teachers who have taken the test say transcribing a dictated passage isn't a skill they use in their classrooms.

Jon Quint, a first-year math teacher at Brockton High School, passed the test in February. The passage read over the tape recorder when he took dictation was about a woman describing a camping or hiking trip, he recalled. He happened to be sitting next to the tinny-sounding tape recorder, he said, or dictation would have been harder.

Dictation has raised protests ever since the teacher test was first given, in 1998.

Silber and a fellow Board of Education member at the time, Edwin J. Delattre, personally urged the testing contractor, National Evaluation Systems Inc., to include dictation. The first teacher test asked applicants to transcribe passages from the Federalist Papers, angering test-takers who said that using the Colonial-era document was overly difficult.

Last year, the troubles Wilfredo T. Laboy, Lawrence superintendent of schools, had with the writing portion of the teacher test became national news. He struggled especially with the dictation section.

State officials say their decision has nothing to do with Laboy, who eventually passed. Rather, the Disability Law Center of Boston approached the Department of Education, saying that the dictation section was an unnecessary and possibly discriminatory hurdle for deaf applicants. The state provides them a sign-language interpreter and gives them extra time, but applicants still said they were slowed down.

In addition, American Sign Language is not a literal translation of English -- and yet the dictation portion required a verbatim transcription.

So in April, after two years of discussions, state Education Commissioner David P. Driscoll decided to halt the dictation section.

In 1998, 59 percent of 1,800 prospective teachers passed the writing test. On the most recent test, in February, 75 percent of 3,218 test-takers passed.

The state does not track how many deaf teachers failed the test solely because of dictation. But Michael J. Bello, director of The Learning Center for Deaf Children in Framingham, said the number is "significant." Of his 57-person teaching staff, eight had to apply for waivers because they did not pass the writing test.

Clarke Fowler, a professor at Salem State College who teaches prospective educators, applauded the end of dictation.

"It was testing the quality of the tape recording. It was testing the room acoustics," said Fowler, a critic of the teacher test. "If you're taking a test to be a court-appointed stenographer where you have to listen to testimony, I'd say that's an appropriate test, because it's related to the task. But I don't know of any class where you listen to students talk on a tape recorder."

Of the 40 states with a teacher test, Massachusetts is the only one with dictation, according to two companies that design teacher licensure exams. An official with the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification said it is "highly unusual."

"Back before technology and all the things we have now, people did shorthand and keyboarding, and [dictation] might have been a component of that," said Mike Lucas, director of educator preparation for the state of Missouri. "But certainly not anymore."

Still, Lawrence School Committee member Amy C. McGovern, a critic of Laboy, said she thinks the dictation section had some use. Replacing it with multiple-choice questions raises the danger of guesswork, she said.

"Instead of eliminating it, they should make the necessary accommodations," McGovern said. "There's an art of knowing how to take a multiple-choice test and filling in the right bubble. When we're trying to review the skills of our potential teachers . . . we should rely more on facts."

Laboy said dictation has no relevance in the modern classroom. Laboy, a native of Puerto Rico for whom English is a second language, passed the test, including dictation, on the fourth try last year. "I am delighted to see the wisdom that has prevailed," he said. "A secretary with shorthand skills would probably do much better than any other educator on that test. Does that qualify him or her to be teaching in the classroom?"

Anand Vaishnav can be reached at

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