At Anuenue Elementary School yesterday, Kaipo Cullen, left, and Wainanai Wong played the ipu and sang a Hawaiian song.

Law pinches
Hawaiian schools

New U.S. testing plans
put immersion students
at a disadvantage

By Treena Shapiro

A federal law aimed at improving public schools could sound a death knell for state-funded Hawaiian-language immersion schools, where English is taught as a secondary language.

That's because under the law, a school's success will be measured by student performance on English-only standardized tests, a challenge for students who have received their school instruction primarily in Hawaiian.

The No Child Left Behind Act allows no flexibility in assessing schools where English is not the primary language. State Department of Education officials are waiting to see whether the regulations will allow immersion schools to use alternative ways of demonstrating that their instruction meets the state's educational standards.

The No Child Left Behind Act requires that high-poverty -- also known as Title I -- schools show adequate progress toward meeting the state's educational standards each year. Schools that fail two or more consecutive years face sanctions that range from providing parents the choice to send their children to higher-performing schools to a complete restructuring of the school.

While the federal regulations apply only to high-poverty schools, the state will use the accountability system at all public schools, including charter schools, with progress measured by students' performance on the Hawaii Content and Performance Standards II tests in the third, fifth, eighth and 12th grades.

At Anuenue School in Palolo, Hawaiian is taught as the primary language from kindergarten; English is introduced in the fifth grade.

Charles Naumu, principal of Anuenue School, said that the standardized tests are not administered until the eighth grade, but "because English is not used as a medium in our curriculum here, our children generally do not do well on their eighth-grade exam."

However, he added, by the 10th grade, Anuenue students' test scores "pretty much show a normal curve."

Naumu said he was surprised to learn that in the same year that Anuenue received its full six-year accreditation and was nominated for the Hawaii Blue Ribbon School Program, it was also on the list of high-poverty schools that failed to meet the state's academic standards for at least two consecutive years.

"The (Blue Ribbon) nomination came from the same Title I office that generated the list" of Hawaii's 85 failing high-poverty schools, he said.

Paul Ban, a Title I specialist for the state Department of Education, said the federal law does not allow for any exceptions in its testing process, which is why Anuenue is on the list.

According to the department's Web site, 1,612 students were enrolled in Hawaiian language immersion programs at 18 schools throughout the state, with two schools -- Anuenue and Nawahiokalaniopuu on the Big Island -- offering only immersion instruction. Ten of those 18 schools are on the Title I failing-schools list, but it is not clear whether the immersion program is a factor.

Noting that Anuenue graduates have gone on to top-notch universities, Ban said, "Obviously, learning is occurring to a significant degree." Still, this is not reflected in the students' scores on the standardized tests.

"The dilemma is a real one with an immersion school where it's 100 percent Hawaiian ... but the state assessment is currently an English-only test," he said.

"How do you assess proficiency when the student hasn't developed proficiency in the language that's being used to measure that particular skill?"

Michael Heim, director of the DOE planning and evaluation branch, said that the law, as written, does not allow for exceptions, but he is hoping that the pending federal regulations will allow the state to use alternative means of measuring adequate yearly progress. The regulations should have been provided to the state last month, but now are not expected until August.

"There's perhaps some hope that when we see the regulations, there may be some flexibility for special circumstances such as a language immersion school or program," Heim said.

But, he noted, while the state would like to continue Hawaiian language immersion programs, "what we prefer might not be what we're permitted."

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