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 Laboy's defense.
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 test result."
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 says.
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 entry-level test.
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."