Native language programs run afoul of
No Child Left Behind
The Associated Press
Jan 26, 2004
By Mike Chambers
From Farmington Daily Times
JUNEAU, Alaska — Some western Alaska
schools that for decades have taught and helped preserve the Native Yupik
language are in a quandary over meeting new federal testing requirements under
the No Child Left Behind Act.
In the Lower Kuskokwim School District, third grade children taught almost
exclusively in the Yupik language may be required to pass federal tests
written in English.
In Alaska, where Natives speak 20 aboriginal languages and dialects, meeting a
uniform federal law could ultimately be too expensive, conflict with Native
cultural traditions as well as the local control that the rural villages
“Not many states face the issues that we do,” said state Education
Commissioner Roger Sampson.
Under the federal law, students would be tested annually from grades 3-8 and
again in high school.
States could make accommodations for language barriers, but after three years
in U.S. public schools the children would be required to take English-only
Aside from the Heritage Language programs in more than 30 rural public
schools, Alaska’s largest city of Anchorage has more than 93 languages spoken
by students, Sampson said.
Already cash strapped, the state can little afford to translate tests into
more than 100 languages, education officials said.
And even if it could, the Yupik language, though spoken by thousands of Alaska
Natives from Norton Sound to Bristol Bay, does not translate as completely as
Spanish or other European languages.
For instance, mathematics to American children is based on units of 10, where
increments of 20 are used in Yupik math and numerous English words have no
The Lower Kuskokwim School District, which oversees schools in Bethel and
surrounding villages has had an intensive Yupik language program for about 30
years, said Superintendent Bill Ferguson.
A similar program instituted by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in earlier years
was seen as a progressive way to assimilate Native children into English
Since then, it’s become a way for Yupik-speaking Natives to sustain their
language and culture just as other Alaska Native languages dwindle.
“I feel strongly that our kids should speak Yupik fluently,” said state Rep.
Mary Kapsner, of Bethel. “I really feel this isn’t just an academic issue
about benchmark tests, but about cultural and social well being.”
Beginning in kindergarten and extending to third grade, students enrolled in
the Yupik language program are taught a Western curriculum similar to those
found in Lower 48 classrooms.
But teachers speak Yupik and students read from Yupik textbooks, produced by
the district by permission of their English-language publishers.
While most children speak some English, those enrolled in the programs don’t
begin formal academic training in the language until fourth grade.
Sampson wants permission from federal education officials to delay testing
these Heritage Language students until sixth grade. At that time, the students
would have had three years of English-speaking instruction.
Already, schools in the district are failing to meet “adequate yearly
progress” set out by the federal law, and much of that is attributed to the
language barrier, Ferguson said.
Alaska educators hold little hope that Yupik-speaking students will fare well
in third-grade testing in the 2005-2006 school year when all schools are
expected to have such tests in place.
Ultimately, Alaska may seek a waiver under the federal law to accommodate its
language barrier, Sampson said. The state Board of Education will to take up
the issue Jan. 29.
Winning an exemption from some parts of No Child Left Behind from Education
Secretary Rod Paige will be difficult.
“Secretary Paige has made some very strong statements regarding the fact that
he doesn’t anticipate the state’s being exempted from any requirement under
NCLB,” said Education Department spokesman Zollie Stevenson.
States could seek federal funds to pay for translating testing materials,
Stevenson said, but he acknowledged enough money may not be available to meet
Alaska’s varied dialects.