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N.J. Drops Bilingual-Certification Rules Requiring Demonstration of Proficiency

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By Peter Schmidt

A decision by the New Jersey Department of Education to drop its requirement that candidates for bilingual-teacher certification demonstrate proficiency in the language they will teach in has seriously weakened the state's ability to ensure the quality of instruction, according to bilingual-education advocates.

The proficiency requirement, which had made New Jersey more stringent than most other states in its standards for bilingual instructors, was scrapped by the board this month as it revised rules on bilingual teachers and teachers of English as a second language.

Education-department officials argued that the state needed to shift the burden of judging language proficiency to the local districts, saying they would be better able to assess candidates for bilingual-teaching positions.

The new rules will improve the quality of bilingual teachers, the officials asserted, because they will allow more people to apply for positions, giving local districts a wider pool of job candidates from which to choose.

But bilingual-education advocates in the state say local districts will be less capable than the state was of assessing language skills, and that the revised rules do not require districts to assess language proficiency at all.

Response to a Shortage

The elimination of the proficiency requirement was one of several amendments and new rules approved by the state board Nov. 8 in response to a shortage of bilingual and e.s.l. teachers.

Leo F. Klagholz, director of teacher preparation and certification for the state, said the stringency of the old certification requirements forced almost every new bilingual and e.s.l. teacher to circumvent the process by seeking "emergency certification."

Teachers who received emergency certification sometimes taught eight years or more without special supervision and without completing requirements, department officials said.

Under the new rules, bilingual instructors need only 6 credits in specialized instruction, and esl teachers need only 12 credits. The old requirements were 24 and 30 credits, respectively.

Also gone is the requirement that e.s.l.-certification candidates who are already certified in another area demonstrate their proficiency in English.

Local Responsibility

A summary of the code changes released by Commissioner of Education Saul Cooperman said the new rules "would charge local employers with the responsibility for choosing candidates who possess foreign-language proficiency appropriate to the students and programs in which they will teach."

But Alfred A. Slocum, public advocate for the state, wrote in a letter to the department that the new certification rule "charges nothing of the sort ... since it is absolutely silent with respect to any second language requirements."

"If the [state education department] is proposing to delegate this responsibility to local districts," Mr. Slocum wrote, "it seeks to do so only by the implication to be drawn only from [its] silence on the subject."

Under the old system, candidates for bilingual certification were interviewed for language proficiency at local colleges.

Tapes of the interviews were then passed on to a clearinghouse, which sent them to reviewers who had been certified by the Educational Testing Service.

Mr. Klagholz said the state was uncomfortable with the system because it could not directly ensure the language proficiency of the people reviewing the tapes, especially when the tapes were in an uncommon language.

"Rather than us assuming the accountability without providing any meaningful assurances, we put the responsibility on the districts," he said.

But bilingual-education advocates said they doubted that local districts could be trusted to hire proficient teachers.

"A lot of the people who do the hiring are monolingual themselves," noted Ruth A. Thomas, editor of the newsletter of the New Jersey Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Language/Bilingual Educators Association.

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