Hawaii public students much better in reading
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For the first time since No Child Left Behind testing began six years ago, Hawai'i's public school students are seeing solid improvement in reading scores, even though they continue to be challenged in math.
The latest scores, released yesterday, were based on a new test which some say could erode confidence in the results.
With the change, 170 Hawai'i schools, or 60.3 percent, achieved "adequate yearly progress" as mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind legislation — up from last year, when just 35.5 percent of the state's 282 tested public schools met the goals.
It was the best result since the state began administering standard tests in 2002.
"If you want to see people jump up and down, come over here to see the joy for having met our goals," said Kalihi Elementary School principal Natalie Mun-Takata yesterday.
There were major gains in every grade, except fourth, which saw a drop in reading scores, said Robert McClelland, head of the Systems Accountability Office for the state Department of Education. "This is wonderful news," McClelland said. "I'm sure there's celebration all across the state."
Still, 111 schools — 39 percent of all public schools — did not meet goals. The status of one school is as yet undetermined.
What's more only 38 percent of students were proficient in math.
"We can't say we're satisfied, especially with 38 percent proficient in math," McClelland said. "We still have to get to 100 percent."
The federal law mandates annual improvement, with the goal of ensuring 100 percent of students are proficient in core subjects by 2014.
School officials are also having to fend off criticism that improved scores are a result of "dumbing-down" the test — a charge they deny.
Officials said a factor in the improvement is that tests became grade-specific this year. For example, fourth-grade students were tested only on work done in that grade, rather than being exposed to questions that relate to fifth-grade work, as in the past.
Members of the Board of Education were not ready to quickly accept the scores, with Donna Ikeda in particular markedly questioning their validity.
"Frankly, I'm questioning your numbers," Ikeda told McClelland at a Board of Education meeting. "I would love to say we're doing better, but if we're not, we can't say it.
"There's going to be doubt in the public's mind about how valid these results are. Change in the test does not help increase public confidence in the system. You have to show that new results you get are equally valid, otherwise the perception is the test is easier."
More than 92,000 students took the statewide school assessment exam this year.
Schools face sanctions, including potential takeover by outside agencies, for failing to meet the goals. This year, a total of 48 schools are facing restructuring, down from 50 schools last year.
Kalihi Elementary was one of 11 schools to exit sanctions completely.
"We pushed real hard. Our teachers worked very hard. Our kids worked hard," said principal Mun-Takata.
Palolo Elementary principal Ruth Silberstein, whose school also climbed out of sanctions this year, said the outside community and the state DOE provided significant support.
"We thank so many people for the kindness that they've shown for the teachers and staff and helped us in every way," she said.
The bottom line is faith in the students. "Of course it boils down to the belief that all students can learn," she said.
NEW VS. OLD TEST
The new test this year, which was more specifically targeted to each grade level, didn't make anything easier at Palolo, Silberstein said. "For us, because we have so much poverty and immigrants, it was just as difficult and the effort we had to put out was just as much or more," Silberstein said.
Anita Silva, a fourth-grade teacher at Palolo, said that the teachers were all committed to improving. "We collaborated with each other a lot and shared what we knew about the children as they moved from grade to grade," she said.
The new standards and test gave teachers a better idea of what was expected of them and the children. "I think it was a fair test," she said. "You can't make everyone happy but they were trying for the best."
McClelland attributed the good overall testing results to a number of factors, including new and more "highly focused" standards along with the new grade-specific test.
He also said schools have been required this past year to conduct quarterly assessments that pinpoint specific needs of individual children, so teachers can intervene quickly.
"The standards-based teaching is developing traction," he said. "The system is much more focused on standards ... and we're more focused on data-driven teaching."
McClelland said only two new schools performed poorly enough to face sanctions this year. That compares to last year, when "44 went into sanctions," McClelland said.
Board member Maggie Cox raised questions about how the new test was developed — questions that the board expects to pursue when a full tally of every school's performance is released in August.
Breene Harimoto said this was still a time to celebrate, although he had some questions about the new testing process.
"Our principals and teachers and students are working so hard all year long and if it looks like we're making progress, let's celebrate and say, 'Thank you.' "
Superintendent Pat Hamamoto told board members schools were seeing a new seriousness in student attitudes toward the testing — and that could explain some of the improvement. As well, she said the testing window had dropped from four to two weeks to give students an even greater sense of urgency.
"That may have contributed to the sense that the testing is important," she said.
Hamamoto also applauded teachers and students for their performance this year, while reminding all that more hard work lies ahead.
"Our schools can truly celebrate the higher proficiency levels achieved by their students," she said in a news release. "However, the challenge remains to reach and assist every student, and ensure there is No Child Left Behind."
But it was clear she was pleased with many of this year's results.
Five years ago, Hamamoto stood in front of a joint session of the state legislature and told lawmakers to "hold me accountable" for progress in state government's largest department.
Lawmakers responded by increasing funding for the state's public schools, allowing the DOE to move forward far more quickly on renovating and repairing the aging infrastructure, and improving its standards-based academics.
Now, after several years of disappointing scores, Hamamoto can point to successes as well as places that still need hard work, including high school math.
Under the federal law, schools had to show that 28 percent of students met math standards and 44 percent met reading standards.
Those levels will increase next year to 46 percent in math and 58 percent in reading. They'll remain at the higher level for the next three years, through 2010.