Wednesday, September 29, 1999

State of Hawaii

LeMahieu ponders
pidgin’s effect on
state students’
writing scores

The schools chief says
pidgin might be to blame
for recent test results

By Crystal Kua


As a youngster growing up in Hawaii, Paul LeMahieu spoke pidgin English on the playground but standard English in the classroom, knowing when and where to turn on and off the island dialect.

Now, as state schools superintendent, LeMahieu and state school board Chairman Mitsugi Nakashima said yesterday they wonder what kind of an influence pidgin English has been in Hawaii's dismal scores on a national writing test.

"If you speak pidgin, then you think pidgin, and you write pidgin," Nakashima said.

Although there's no Board of Education policy covering the use of pidgin English in the classroom, LeMahieu and Nakashima said its effect should be examined.

Nakashima said standard English should be the norm in classrooms. But it may be difficult to police that position.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress released yesterday showed that Hawaii's eighth-graders scored below the national average in several areas. Also, 26 of the 39 states and jurisdictions that took the test scored higher than Hawaii.

Eighth-grade students -- 2,647 from 49 public schools -- were the only ones tested in Hawaii. They took the test in the spring of 1998.

LeMahieu said the department is "dissatisfied" with the results and will use the scores as a baseline. "We expect to see improvement over time."

LeMahieu said the state's serious attention toward implementing Hawaii's content and performance standards could see the necessary emphasis being placed on writing. "Our standards now reflect that," LeMahieu said.

Noticeable improvement in test scores could be seen within three to six years, based on the progress made by states that have focused on standards and did well in the NAEP results.

LeMahieu said knowing what's expected in different environments could assist teachers and principals in setting the expectation that standard English be used in the classroom.

Pidgin English may not be the only factor in the low writing scores.

Hawaii follows the rest of the nation in many demographic trends, except for one, LeMahieu said.

Asian or Pacific Island students on the mainland did better than their counterparts in Hawaii.

The teaching of writing may also change in Hawaii.

State curriculum experts are working to expand ways to teach writing, including looking at the process of how professional writers write, he said.

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