Bilingual Controversy at CUNY-Hostos Revolves Around Final Exam
A controversy that erupted this spring over bilingual
education at Eugenio Maria de Hostos Community College, which is part
of the City University of New York (CUNY), has languished in the courts
and turned into a war of words in the media.
Critics of Hostos, primarily the board of trustees for CUNY. charge
that the bilingual college, which was founded in 1968, is failing to
produce bilingual students. They further charge that Hostos has
replaced the standard CUNY exit exam with a “watered down” version.
Herman Badillo, one of the founders of the college and a trustee for
CUNY, said. “First the CUNY Writing Assessment Test (CWAT) was an
entrance exam, then an exit exam, and now, it has been dropped
Administrators and supporters of Hostos strongly disagree with the
charges and say that attacks against the nation’s only bilingual
two-year college are politically motivated, part of the anti-bilingual
education movement in the country, and most importantly, based on
Hostos English professor Henry Lesnick said that Hostos is fully
within its rights to discard CWAT. He also said that research
conclusively shows that using multiple factors in language-proficiency
assessment is better than a fifty-minute test. The week prior to the
trustees’ action, the Hostos College Senate endorsed multiple measures
“The trustees disregarded the prevailing academic wisdom,” he said.
Badillo said that charges that he and the trustees are anti-bilingual are simply false.
“I’m the founder of bilingual education. I was the founder of
Hostos. I have been supporting bilingual education since before
[student critics of CUNY’s board of trustees] were born. No one has
been in favor of bilingual education more than I,” said Badillo.
He is also concerned that not producing bilingual students “can be
used against us” by the enemies of bilingual education. Therefore, he
believes that expecting students to write an error-free and coherent
350-word essay is not a lot to ask to show English proficiency.
“Bilingual means knowing two languages, not one,” he said.
An “Arbitrary and Capricious” Action
This spring, Badillo first charged that students at Hostos were
graduating without learning English. Consequently, the Board of
Trustees passed a resolution in May, mandating that all students pass
the CWAT as a requirement for graduation.
As a result, two students sued, alleging that the board had
overstepped its authority and that, in any case, it was unfair to
impose a graduation requirement four days before the end of school.
In July, in Mendez v. Reynolds, the Supreme Court of the State of
New York ruled in favor of the students, stating that the action of the
trustees was “arbitrary and capricious, and in the present case must be
held to be undertaken in bad faith.” The court found that the board
acted in haste and directed its actions at Hostos, “and not the other
community colleges in the CUNY system.”
Judge Kenneth Thompson further commented, “The obvious unfairness in
changing the degree requirements immediately before graduation is
However, as a result of New York State law, the decision was stayed,
pending an appeal, said Ronald McGuire, the attorney representing the
plaintiffs. This means that until the case is heard again, students
wanting to graduate will be required to pass the CWAT, he said.
Hostos President Dr. Isaura Santiago said that most press accounts
regarding the controversy are wrong and that the trustees made
decisions without all the facts. Because they were prohibited from
speaking during the earlier part of the litigation, Hostos did not
comment on the controversy until very recently. Even now, because the
issue is before the courts, Santiago said she is constrained in terms
of what she can say.
Santiago did say, however, that certain perceptions need to be
cleared up, such as the belief that the CWAT was ever an entrance exam.
According to her, it was designed as an assessment and placement test.
Another misconception is that most classes at Hostos are taught in Spanish.
“It’s not true. Only 16 to 17 percent of our classes are taught in
Spanish,” she said, adding that most of those courses are taught at the
“The worst misconception,” said Santiago, “is that the students
don’t want to learn English. That’s nothing short of absurd. They know
English is power and that it empowers them.”
Hostos student Dagoberto Lopez said, “The notion that we don’t want
to learn English is a flat-out lie. We understand that to survive we
need to know English. We’re not that dumb. We need to know English to
be able to serve our communities.”
As a result of the court decision, all the students who had not
passed the test were able to participate in the graduation ceremonies.
However as a result of the stay, the students who did not pass have not
received their diplomas.
“Lost in this story is that of 426 of the students in question, 312
had already passed the CWAT,” said Santiago. “Of the remainder, only
about fifty diplomas are being held.”
Alternative Measures of Assessment
To understand this issue requires understanding the facts, said
Santiago. Regarding the CWAT, she said that unlike what the press has
reported, over the past year, almost all the colleges in the CUNY
system – including Hostos – introduced alternative measures of
assessment to replace or supplement the CWAT.
According to Santiago, after four years of studies and research, the
English Department at Hostos developed a more relevant method of
assessing language proficiency – the Hostos Writing Assessment Test
(HWAT). The department also proposed using multiple measures of
assessment – including speaking, writing, comprehension, grades and a
final test in class.
The research Hostos relied on was that of professor Ricardo
Otheguy’s CUNY-initiated study, The Condition of Latinos in the City
University of New York, said Lesnick. The 1990 report concluded that
the CWAT “lacks systematic supporting validation research, [and] relies
on single measures against the advice of authorities in the area of
Lesnick said that on May 27, the trustees were unaware of the above
facts and imposed CWAT as a requirement for graduation. The studies had
found the CWAT to be an inappropriate measure, particularly placing
“Black and Latino students at a distinct disadvantage,” said Lesnick.
So heated has the debate been that Hostos professor Silvio
Torres-Saillant and professor Ramona Hernandez of the University of
Massachusetts-Boston found it necessary to write to the editor of the
New York Daily News, calling into question their reporting style. In
stories about the Hostos bilingual controversy, the Daily News reporter
used Dominican students to bolster the argument that Hostos is failing
in its mission of producing bilingual students, said Torres-Saillant.
This gave the impression that the conflict was between Dominican
students and Puerto Rican administrators.
“The problems at Hostos are systemic, not inter-ethnic,” he said.
“We thought if we didn’t respond, people would get the idea that
Dominicans didn’t want bilingual education. Dominicans in New York are
the ones who need bilingual education the most.
“The problem with this debate is that the voices that are heard the
most are political voices. Certainly it’s not educators who are being
heard. Educational issues should be discussed with education logic, not
political logic. The real issue at CUNY is the downsizing of the
university,” said Torres-Saillant.
At the moment no court date has been set, but McGuire expects that
it could be anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. Part of the
reason for the delay is that the court has lost the documents relevant
to the case, he said. Attorneys on both sides are currently trying to
reconstruct the documents.
McGuire also said that the board of trustees would like to see
Spanish speakers removed from CUNY campuses and placed in off-campus,
English-only immersion centers.
“That’s segregation, and it’s a recipe for failure,” said McGuire.
“The real issue at Hostos has little to do with tests. The issue is
that CUNY is at war with its students.”
McGuire also noted that CUNY has more students of color (140,000)
than the State University of New York (SUNY) and the California State
University (CSU) systems combined.
Then and Now
From 1847 to 1976, CUNY – which was known as the City College of New
York – was tuition-free. The introduction of tuition at CUNY coincided
with the first year that people of color became the majority in the
system, according to McGuire, who charges that since then, CUNY has
found ways to cut the educational opportunities for its students.
“This is not about tests or budget cutbacks,” he said. “It’s about
educational genocide. This is the first time the trustees have been
appointed by a Republican governor and mayor, and to them, Black and
Latino students are expendable. When European immigrants were in the
majority, CUNY went out of its way to meet their needs.”
To bring about a solution at Hostos, McGuire believes that CUNY has
to start with the assumption that its students of color can be leaders.
Then it must provide whatever resources are needed to give them a
Badillo maintains that all the counter-charges hurled at the
trustees are a red herring. He said the trustees are right in insisting
that students be able to pass the CWAT.
“All the trustees want is for the students to be bilingual when they
graduate – to know English and another language,” he said. “If they
can’t read or write in English, they shouldn’t graduate.”
COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com