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Mass. To Require Proficiency Test in Foreign Language

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Some school districts in Massachusetts will soon be busy at a new task: starting a foreign-language program from scratch.

A bill signed into law last month by Gov. William F. Weld places Massachusetts among a handful of states that are backing up their commitment to make foreign-language study a core academic subject by requiring it for graduation. The law requires students to prove their proficiency in Spanish, German, Russian, or some other tongue besides English.

The state education department estimates that 15 percent of the 350 school districts in the state do not now offer any such instruction.

"I've dubbed this 'back to the future' education," said state Rep. Douglas W. Peterson, who sponsored the bill. "My parents were required to learn Latin. When I came out of New York 35 years ago, every 5th grader in my elementary school had to choose French or Spanish."

The law adds foreign language to the list of subjects for which Massachusetts students will have to pass a 10th-grade competency test, beginning in 1997. The others are English, mathematics, science and technology, history, and social sciences.

Massachusetts also joins five other states that mandate statewide assessment in a foreign language, according to the Joint National Committee for Languages. They are California, Colorado, New York, North Carolina, and Texas.

"Twenty-seven states have integrated foreign language into their core curricula, but very few offer assessments specifically for foreign languages," said Julie Inman, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based committee.

The organization recently released a report that concluded that foreign-language instruction has "been threatened and bolstered by education reform simultaneously."

Such instruction has been helped by its inclusion in the national education goals and by a trend toward integrating foreign-language study into state-level core curricula, according to the group.

However, the report says, budgetary constraints and competition with other academic disciplines have threatened foreign-language instruction.

"Every local district has different priorities and different needs," Ms. Inman said. "Foreign language as a discipline is still viewed by many as a frill."

In addition, 35 states are experiencing shortages of qualified foreign-language teachers, she pointed out. "And starting up programs is a major investment."

Doubts Erased

In Massachusetts, a recent survey by the state education department showed that 82 percent of high schools statewide offer a foreign-language program, as do 60 percent of middle schools and 7 percent of elementary schools.

During the debate over Representative Peterson's bill last year, the department expressed doubts about whether school districts without any foreign-language program could establish an adequate one in time for students to reach a level in which they could pass a competency test.

"But now that it is law, we don't object to the bill," said Alan Safran, a spokesman for the department. "We strongly endorse putting assessment tests behind the common core."

The state's common core of learning calls for kindergarten to be the starting place for the study of a foreign language.

"But the common core is not a mandate," Mr. Safran said. The department is now speeding its plans to assist school districts that do not have foreign-language programs. "The question is: How quickly can the districts scale up to make sure all their students have had a chance to learn a language?"

Setting Up Programs

Some districts in the state that lack foreign-language courses are already taking steps to establish programs. The Berkley district has added foreign-language study to its budget next year for 6th, 7th, and 8th grades.

"The only reason we haven't offered any in the past is because of financial constraints," said Sherry Madeiros, the principal of the town's only public school, the Berkley Community School.

The district, which pays tuition to send its students to a nearby high school, hopes to add foreign languages to its elementary grades in a few years.

Ms. Madeiros said she agrees with the goal of requiring students to learn a foreign language, although she believes 1997 may be too early to begin testing them for competency.

Representative Peterson said it is time to raise the educational levels of Massachusetts students to world standards.

"If we are really talking about a world class, you can't leave foreign-language instruction out of that mix, because the world is teaching its students a second or even third language," he said.

Districts without language programs have plenty of time to hire instructors and need not complain about a lack of money, because the state has boosted funding to districts in the name of education reform, he said.

The Governor signed the foreign-language bill into law on Jan. 11.

Mr. Peterson, a Democrat, had little trouble persuading Governor Weld, a Republican, to support it. Mr. Weld speaks or reads French, Spanish, German, Latin, and ancient Greek.

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