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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, August 13, 2002

Hawaiian standard tests planned

By Jennifer Hiller
Advertiser Education Writer

To comply with federal law and protect the Hawaiian-language immersion program, the Department of Education is developing a set of Hawaiian-language standardized tests for elementary school students.

First-grader Kawa'a Kahana-Reid, 5, marks his assignment in Leilani Kamalani's Hawaiian immersion class at Anuenue Elementary School.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

They will be the first of their kind and represent the first time children in the program will be required to take standardized tests.

"Up until now, our answer has been, 'Well we don't have a Hawaiian-language test, so we can't test,' " said Puanani Wilhelm, a DOE education specialist in Hawaiian immersion. "Not testing cannot be the answer."

Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, states will be required to test all students on math and reading skills in the third through eighth grades, and at least once in high school.

The new law had been seen as a possible threat to the Hawaiian immersion movement and to other immersion schools around the country that teach Native American tribal languages, Japanese or French, for example, before introducing English into the classroom.

DOE officials worried that the standardized tests would have to be given in English starting in the third grade — two full years before English is introduced as a subject in immersion classes.

Not only would that almost guarantee low test scores, children would be discouraged by being tested in a language they speak but have not approached academically, Wilhelm said.

The first Hawaiian-language math test will be given to third-graders in the spring, when students statewide go through the annual round of testing.

"It turns out that there's no explicit requirement that the testing be done in English," said Michael Heim, director of planning and evaluation at the DOE. "The skills the students learn could be learned in any language."


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After getting the go-ahead from the U.S. Department of Education, local officials now face the challenge of creating tests in Hawaiian.

The DOE once tried to do a direct translation of the English-language test for third-graders.

"The math worked out fairly well. The reading didn't," Heim said. "There are lots of nuances in any language. Our reading tests are based on comprehension of passages. The requirement we had is that it be authentic, real literature. Everything the students read has been published; we don't make it up. The deeper and richer the literature, the harder it is to translate well because of the nuances of the language being used."

The Hawaiian-language test will parallel the English test in content and difficulty, but may use different literature passages.

"My famous example is 'kick the bucket,'" said Wilhelm. "If you do a translation, it doesn't mean anything besides to kick a bucket. You want kids to have an equal chance to get to the right answer. You don't want them to be so confounded by the translation that they can't understand the test."

Wilhelm said the biggest challenge would be to find appropriate literature. While there is a wealth of newspaper articles and academic work in Hawaiian, Wilhelm said, test designers may have to hunt for works that fit a third-grade vocabulary.

"I think the biggest difficulty in Hawaiian is that Hawaiian hasn't been used as an education language for 100 years," she said. "What is an appropriate level of difficulty for a child in grade three? You can't give a third-grader Shakespeare."

This year, the DOE will develop the reading test for third grade and math test for fourth grade, which they will roll out in spring 2004. Next year, the department will develop the fourth grade reading test.

Once Hawaiian immersion students hit fifth grade, they'll take the same test as other DOE students.

About 1,800 students in 43 schools participate in the Hawaiian immersion program, most of Hawaiian ancestry. Before the program was started in 1987, only 30 children spoke Hawaiian, according to research from the University of Hawai'i. From 1898 to 1987, the language was banned from classrooms.

Because of the passion felt for revival of the the language and for the immersion program, Wilhelm said there might be resistance even to testing in English in the fifth grade.

"We can't be afraid of the test. I think it has more to show us about how we can improve their program than we have to fear," she said.

Reach Jennifer Hiller at jhiller@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8084.