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, and conflict with Native cultural traditions as well as the local control that the rural villages treasure.
"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 tests.
Aside from the Heritage Language programs in more than 30 rural public schools, 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. Numerous English words have no Yupik counterparts.
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 fluency.
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 U.S. Department of Education 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.
For more, go to No Child Left Behind:www.nochildleftbehind.gov/
State Department of Education and Early Development:www.eed.state.ak.us/
Lower Kuskokwim School District:www.lksd.org/