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Rules strain immersion schools

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Hawaiian-immersion educators are asking the federal government for an exemption from English-language testing standards and other No Child Left Behind mandates, saying they present big obstacles for language-immersion schools.

At stake, they and Native American educators say, are programs vital to keeping indigenous languages alive.

About 2,000 students in nearly two dozen Hawaii schools are in immersion programs in which instruction is carried out in the Hawaiian language.

Last week, dozens of native leaders gathered in Washington, D.C., to push for changes to the law, saying language-immersion schools are struggling to meet NCLB requirements—which include testing their students in English—while adhering to their mission of perpetuating native languages and culture.

The advocates also say NCLB conflicts with the Native American Languages Act, which encourages the use of indigenous languages "as a medium of instruction."

"Part of what’s going on is an incredible inflexibility and an expectation that one size fits all, when by definition immersion is not of that size," said Colin Kippen, executive director of the Native Hawaiian Education Council.

He added that immersion schools shouldn’t be penalized if their students don’t do well on English-language tests if students don’t learn in English.

He also said NCLB expects unrealistic staffing expectations of immersion schools, which must find secondary school teachers who are both "highly qualified" under NCLB standards and proficient in Hawaiian.

William H. "Pila" Wilson, chairman of the academic programs division at the University of Hawaii at Hilo’s College of Hawaiian Language, said the federal government needs to come up with a "fair way of testing" immersion school students.


» Ke Kula Kaiapuni ‘O Anuenue Palolo, Oahu 347 students in grades K-12
» Ke Kula ‘o ‘Ehunuikaimalino Kealakekua, Big Island 188 students in grades K-12
» In addition, six charter schools are Hawaiian immersion campuses, and 14 other public schools have Hawaiian immersion programs on campus.

Source: State Department of Education

"The big thing is to have some relief in terms of testing to allow immersion schools on a national level to work on a way to demonstrate academic success," Wilson said, adding that some Hawaii parents have refused to let their children be tested in English.

The U.S. Department of Education is studying the concerns of immersion schools, but has not said when a determination on possible changes could be made.

There is considerable pressure to achieve NCLB standards: Schools that do not make adequate yearly progress in student proficiency for two consecutive years are subject to varying sanctions that include state intervention and replacement of school staff.

Much of the discussion at the recent Washington summit, which Kippen and Wilson attended, centered around efforts to revitalize native languages and to measure student achievement in immersion schools.

Hawaii educators point out that the state Department of Education has tried to provide special accommodations to immersion schools.

Still, Hawaii immersion schools have had difficulty recruiting "highly qualified" secondary school teachers.

And schools say tests for Hawaiian-language immersion students don’t always provide an accurate picture of what students know.

Hawaiian immersion students in the third and fourth grade are the only children in the country who take an annual assessment for NCLB in a different language—English—than that used in their classes.

In upper grades, students take the Hawaii State Assessment in English, which some immersion schools say puts the students at a disadvantage.

Hawaiian-language immersion students begin getting formal instruction in English in fifth grade.

The Department of Education is working to produce Hawaiian-language tests for higher grades, but that work is slow going because of limited resources.

In April, about 290 students statewide took the Hawaiian Aligned Portfolio Assessment, a test intended to measure math and reading proficiency under NCLB for third- and fourth-grade immersion students.

Some 62 percent of students who took the HAPA this year tested as proficient in reading, while 59 percent tested as proficient in math.

There are 16 public schools statewide that offer Hawaiian-language immersion programs. In most cases, the programs are contained within a traditional school. But three offer complete language-immersion campuses. In addition, there are six Hawaiian immersion public charter schools.

An accounting of how Hawaiian-language immersion students perform overall in tests for NCLB was not immediately available.

Ke Kula Kaiapuni ‘O Anuenue, a K-12 public school immersion campus in Palolo, did not meet annual progress goals under NCLB this year. Ke Kula ‘o Ehunuikaimalino, a K-12 immersion school in Kealakekua, did meet the standards but is concerned about hitting proficiency standards next year, when schools will be expected to meet higher progress goals.

At the Ke Kula ‘o Ehunuikaimalino campus, 71 percent of students tested proficient in reading and 50 percent tested proficient in math this year.

Keliikanoe Oakland, school vice principal, said NCLB has had a positive effect in some regards. For one, she said, it has pushed schools to do better.

But she said finding "highly qualified" secondary school teachers who are proficient in Hawaiian is sometimes next to impossible. She also said tests need to be better formulated to accommodate immersion school students.

"I personally like the accountability element," she said. "But I’m worried … about the benchmarks going up."


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