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The Honolulu Advertiser
Updated at 2:56 p.m., Wednesday, January 7, 2009

40% of Hawaii's English-language learners struggling, report says

By Loren Moreno
Advertiser Education Writer

Forty percent of Hawai'i's English-language learners are failing to make progress toward English proficiency, according to a new report released today.

The results are part of Quality Counts 2009, a project of the nonprofit Editorial Progress in Education, which publishes Education Week. Quality Counts has been examining education policy through its comparative study for the past 13 years.

Each year the report highlights a specific aspect of education policy. This year, the report examined the academic achievement of English-language learners state-by-state.

Hawai'i is not alone in its struggle to help English-language learners achieve, the report found. In fact, Quality Count reports that nationally 25 percent of ELL students are not making progress.

Maine had the highest percentage of students failing to make process toward English proficiency with 45 percent. New Mexico, Arkansas and Louisiana were also among those who had a high percentage of ELL students failing to grasp the English language.

On the other hand, the report found that 42 percent of Hawai'i's ELL students are making progress toward English proficiency. Another six percent have already reached it.

Andreas Wiegand, state specialist for the English Language Learner program, said the state has made progress over the past several years. But he admitted that Hawai'i faces many challenges.

"We do have a very diverse group of ELL students, which spans 75-plus languages," Wiegand said.

"That makes providing bilingual support very difficult," he said.

Ilocano and Tagalog are the most commonly spoken second languages in Hawai'i's schools. That's followed by Marshallese and Chuukese. The 10 most commonly spoken languages in Hawai'i's schools have 400 or more students.

Much of the increase in Hawai'i's ELL population came from 2001 to 2006 and was made up primarily of Marshallese and Chuukese students. Weigand said the state had to adapt its second language strategy during this period of growth.

There are about 17,000 ELL students in Hawai'i.

"It's a significant and growing population when the general education population is on the decline," he said.

Hawai'i's ELL students have made progress on standardized test scores, yet they still trail behind their English-speaking peers, the report found.

For instance, only 16 percent of ELL students were proficient in mathematics in 2006-2007. That percentage increased to 26 percent the next year.

Likewise, about 24 percent of ELL students were proficient in reading in 2006-2007. That compares with 35 percent in 2007-2008.

"The indications are that we're making progress in this sub group, but we're certainly not where we would want to be," Wiegand said.

Meanwhile, Quality Counts 2009 graded Hawai'i's overall education system a C. That's on par with the grade given to the nation as a whole.

Hawai'i received a D in the area of student achievement, the lowest-scoring category for Hawai'i's public schools. More specifically, the report ranked Hawai'i near the bottom of the list in terms of its public school graduation rate.

Quality Counts listed Hawai'i's graduation rate as 64.1 percent, a number vigorously disputed by the state Department of Education.

The DOE recorded its 2004 graduation rate the same year being examined by the report at 79.8 percent.

Education officials have said that the DOE has one of the more reliable methods of calculating the graduation rate. Because of Hawai'i's statewide school district, the state is able to track individual students through graduation and therefore has a more accurate count of the state's graduation rate.

Reach Loren Moreno at lmoreno@honoluluadvertiser.com.