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Language a barrier for tests at Hawaiian charter school

  • STAR-ADVERTISER / January 2011

A Big Island charter school that educates students in the Hawaiian language claims the state Department of Education’s recently released rankings unfairly imply the school is failing.

Nawahiokalaniopuu Iki, known as Nawahi for short, scored 20 out of a possible 400 in the state’s new performance system, which measures schools on multiple factors, including chronic absenteeism and science proficiency.

Principal Kauanoe Kamana blames the low score on a lack of appropriate Hawaiian-language tests, which has led the majority of parents at her school to boycott the state’s assessments. She said the deparment should explain that when releasing the list.

"To be listed at the bottom of the list indicates a lack of connection between our Department of Education’s English testing and the strengths we have in Hawaiian-medium education," she said. "We have not as a state come to grips with assessment issues relative to our two official languages of our state."

Kamana’s concern highlights problems of developing suitable assessments for students at schools that use the Hawaiian language, said Tom Hutton, executive director of the State Public Charter School Commission. "That’s been a thorny issue long before Strive HI," he said of the state’s new performance system, which released its first report card last week.

The Department of Education is working to tackle the complex issue with help from funds appropriated by the state Legislature, spokeswoman Donalyn Dela Cruz said.

"We recognize the need for a culturally appropriate assessment for immersion schools," she said. "The challenge is while Hawaiian is an official language, not all words translate into Hawaiian. The language is beautifully and uniquely layered. Some schools, depending on location, may know a word differently than another."

In a continuing effort of revitalizing Hawaiian, a growing number of schools are offering an education that centers on the language. About half of the state’s 33 charter schools are Hawaiian-focused or Hawaiian-immersion.

There are also Hawaiian immersion schools and programs within the department. Some use tests that are in English, while others are willing to use assessments translated into Hawaiian.

Nawahi, which has 275 students, provides the state assessments, but the vast majority of parents opt not to have their children take them, Kamana said, because they want a test that is developed in Hawaiian.

"Translation is problematic — grammatically, structurally and culturally," Kamana said.

The Keaau-based school recently started a satellite program in Nanakuli on Oahu because a group of parents wanted more Hawaiian-language options on the Waianae Coast. The program is starting with five kindergarteners who were graduates of Punana Leo o Waianae, a Hawaiian-language preschool.

Translating a test isn’t equitable because the Hawaiian translation tends to be longer and could affect the time it takes a student to complete a test, said Kalehua Caceres, the preschool’s director, who led the effort to bring Nawahi to Oahu.

"The way we educate our children reflects our values," she said. "It depends on who’s translating and how it’s being translated. Traditionally there were different dialects."

The issue of assessment language had been a problem for Nawahi before the state rolled out its new system. Under No Child Left Behind, which relies mostly on reading and math scores, Nawahi was in "school improvement status."

In a letter to Lyndsay Pinkus, chief of staff to the department’s deputy superintendent, Kamana said high school students educated at Nawahi have a 100 percent graduation rate and an 80 percent college attendance rate.

But Pinkus responded that while the high school students are indeed performing very well, they couldn’t be counted in Nawahi’s score because those students are technically considered enrolled at Hilo High School. Nawahi’s contract with the charter school commission is for kindergarten through eighth grade.

Because of its small student population, privacy laws prevent the state from publicly releasing details about Nawahi’s score.

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