Hawaii schools' failure to meet benchmarks troubles officials
By Loren Moreno
Advertiser Education Writer
Education officials have few explanations for what they consider to be a disturbing trend — year after year Hawai'i's high schools struggle to make "adequate yearly progress" under the federal No Child Left Behind law.
Just three of Hawai'i's 33 regular public high schools were able to demonstrate sufficient progress under the federal mandate this year: Campbell, Kaiser and Kalani.
"It's a multitude of reasons. One is the rigor of the federal mandate. But also, in high school, kids are dealing with a lot of different issues," said Gerald Teramae, principal of Kalani High School. "It's tough. The kids are older, they have different agendas."
While Kalani was one of the high schools to make AYP this year, that doesn't mean the school is not struggling under the federal law, Teramae said.
Ninety percent of Kalani's students demonstrated proficiency in reading, but only 48 percent of its students demonstrated proficiency in math concepts. That's just two points above the state mandated benchmark of 46 percent.
And Kalani's math score has been on the decline over the past three years. In 2007, 55 percent of students demonstrated math proficiency. That dropped to 53 percent in 2008.
While most individual high schools are struggling to meet the list of demands of NCLB, statewide test scores from high school students are showing some improvement, mostly in reading.
On the high school level, only 10th-grade students are tested by the Hawai'i State Assessment, the test used to determine progress under NCLB. Reading proficiency jumped from 65 percent in 2007 to 73 percent this year.
Math scores have not seen the same kind of growth. About 29 percent of the state's 10th-grade students demonstrated proficiency in math in 2007. That increased to 34 percent this year.
High schools appear to be having a tougher time than elementary or middle schools in achieving NCLB targets, education officials said.
"There's a fairly complicated web of issues involved," said Glenn Hirata, head of the DOE's system evaluation and reporting section. "The NCLB's AYP model is more likely to put high schools in sanctions because they have larger enrollments. The model is biased against large schools."
NCLB requires that each significant subgroup of students represented at a school meet the set targets — this year at 58 percent for reading and 46 percent for math.
There are a total of 37 possible subgroups that students are categorized in — from specific ethnicities, to various income levels, to English-language learners to special-needs students.
Not all of those subgroups may be represented at an elementary school, which tends to be smaller, with more homogeneous populations coming from similar ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Since high schools cover larger geographic areas, students tend to come from many different backgrounds. If just one of those groups fails to meet either reading or math goals, the whole school fails.
"That's the reality, but that's not an excuse for not making proficiency expectations," said Cara Tanimura, director of the DOE's Systems Accountability Office.
"It's a problem. That's clear," Superintendent Patricia Hamamoto said of the poor performance at high schools. "In order to help move the high schools along, we need to start with students at a young age. We have to work with the elementary and middle schools so students come in to the ninth-grade prepared to do the work they are expected to do."
At Kaiser High School, which met its benchmark, there isn't a significant portion of students coming from economically disadvantaged homes or requiring special education, said principal John Sosa.
"We don't have a lot of subgroups because our population is pretty straightforward. When you have higher numbers of different subgroups, like most high schools do, you have a harder time making your AYP," Sosa said.
Aside from some high schools' larger, more diverse populations, Sosa said high schools also have to overcome student apathy about the Hawai'i State Assessment test.
"The problem is, there is nothing in this for the kid. It doesn't count toward graduation requirements, it won't help them get into college. It's a standalone assessment that has no connection to the student," Sosa said.
In addition to the three regular high schools that made NCLB goals, three multi-level and special schools also reached the target: Laupahoehoe High & Elementary; 'Ehunuikaimalino, a Hawaiian Immersion School; and Ni'ihau.
Of the 18 public charter schools that serve ninth- through 12th-grade students, two achieved their goals: Education Laboratory PCS and Waters of Life New Century PCS.
Part of the strategy that Laupahoehoe High & Elementary School used to make its NCLB goals was to put students through monthly assessments that mimic concepts they're expected to know on the state exam, said principal Thomas Ekno. Most schools only do quarterly assessments, Ekno said.
"By collecting data monthly, we're intervening in real time," Ekno said.
The assessments allow teachers to see exactly which concepts students are struggling with so they can provide those students with additional help, Ekno said.
Meanwhile, education officials say that the U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and President Obama have placed less emphasis on NCLB's AYP, or "status model." Instead, they say the focus has been on showing steady growth.
"What we're seeing is a move toward a more realistic and achievable goal with the new administration," Hirata said.