Schools Stall in Test Scores

Proficiency in reading has improved, but 117 schools are still struggling

By Mary Vorsino, Honolulu Star Advertiser

POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Aug 13, 2010

Despite making steady improvement in overall test scores, most Hawaii public schools continue to see a sizable group of students who are “well below” proficiency levels in reading and math, school-by-school results released yesterday show.

At 221 of the state’s 286 public and charter schools, the percentage of students in one or more grade levels who tested “well below” proficiency in math in the Hawaii State Assessment reached or exceeded 25 percent.

Reading proficiency was better. Even so, in 117 schools at least a quarter of students in one or more grade levels tested “well below” proficiency.

The results come as schools face proficiency goals that go up another notch under No Child Left Behind this year, and also begin major curriculum shifts to align with national standards.

For a school to have attained NCLB goals in the 2009-10 school year, 58 percent of students had to demonstrate proficiency in reading on the Hawaii State Assessment, and 46 percent had to be proficient in math.

After staying the same for three years, the benchmarks increase this year: 72 percent of students will have to be proficient in reading, and 64 percent of students proficient in math.

By 2014, 100 percent of students are expected to demonstrate a high level of skill in core subjects.

“The reality is we know we’re going to go up another set of benchmarks,” said Dan Hamada, Department of Education assistant superintendent for the office of curriculum, instruction and student support. “As a system we’re moving toward it. We just need to fine-tune which schools are lagging and how do we help them.”

Schools got a pleasant surprise earlier this summer when education officials announced that despite losing 17 instructional days to teacher furloughs, more schools reached adequate yearly progress under NCLB. This year, 141 public schools made adequate yearly progress (AYP), compared with 101 schools last year and 119 in 2008.

Still, 51 percent of schools, or 145 campuses, did not meet the annual goals — and some fell far short of the benchmarks.

The state places student test scores into four categories: “well below standards,” “approaches,” “meets” or “exceeds.”

Sixty-seven percent of 10th-graders at Nanakuli High and Intermediate School tested “well below” proficient in math, and 39 percent were “well below” in reading, the school-by-school results show.

At Hilo High School, 45 percent of students tested “well below” proficient in math, and 27 percent were “well below” in reading.

But other schools are making big gains — and achieving scores above the benchmarks.

Mililani Waena Elementary School had another year of improvement — with 82 percent of students testing proficient in reading (up 7 percentage points from the year before) and 77 percent testing proficient in math (up from 71 percent in 2009).

The school of 600 students — 28 percent of whom are on free or reduced-cost lunch — has gained consistently in recent years and has met NCLB benchmarks every year since 2007.

Principal Dale Castro, in his fifth year at Mililani Waena, said the key is continuously tracking student progress to make sure no one is lagging behind, and giving teachers time to talk about how their students are doing and steps they are taking to boost student achievement.

Teachers at the school meet for 80 minutes every three days for “student-focused planning time” to compare notes and plan curricula and strategy.

Castro said the school — along with every grade level and classroom — also sets its own proficiency goals. For this year the school hopes to have 85 percent of students proficient in reading and 80 percent proficient in math.

“The process of setting goals and reflecting on them helps people to stay on track and make real-time adjustments,” Castro said. “Our goal has always been to ensure every student is making progress.”

Some 93,190 students in grades 3 through 8 and in grade 10 took the Hawaii State Assessment tests in April.

Overall, statewide results showed 67 percent of public school students tested proficient in reading, and 49 percent of students were proficient in math.

High schools have historically had a tougher time meeting the benchmarks, especially in math, and the number of high schools meeting proficiency goals has shrunk as the standards have risen.

Some predict this school year could be the first time no Hawaii high schools meet rising proficiency goals.

Only five high schools achieved AYP for reading and math in the 2009-10 year, and all those campuses will have to increase proficiency to meet the new goals this year.

John Sosa, principal of Kaiser High School, said the campus is focusing on improving math proficiency. The school met AYP, with 86 percent of 10th-graders testing proficient in reading and 53 percent testing proficient in math.

The school needs to increase the number of students proficient in math by 11 percent to meet this year’s benchmark.

Sosa said he is hopeful the state’s switch to online testing will make a difference, since for first time students will be able to take the assessment up to three times (with the highest score counted).

The online test is also designed to appeal to today’s tech-savvy students, with interactive elements such as animation and computer graphics.

Students will be able to take the online assessments during an eight-month period, from October to May. Schools were administering the paper test during three weeks in April, and results did not come out until July.

“We are hopeful with the switch to the online testing format that some of those pencil-and-paper issues that arose might in fact benefit the students,” Sosa said. “Will it be enough (to attain AYP)? We’re not sure. We’re going to try really hard.”

Sosa added that the school thrives by stressing student achievement, not necessarily high test scores.

“We tend not to focus on the AYP,” he said.

There has been talk nationally of overhauling NCLB, which critics say overemphasizes test scores, but for now it is still the law so schools must try to meet annual benchmarks — and face sanctions if they fail.

Kualapuu Elementary School on Molokai is celebrating after meeting adequate yearly progress this year — and making big gains. Sixty-one percent of students at the charter school tested proficient in math, up from 47 percent last year.

Principal Lydia Trinidad said the improvements were possible thanks to lots of tutoring and directed help. The school, which became a public charter school in 2004 because it was falling short of NCLB goals, has 385 kids. Of those, 75 percent are low-income.

Trinidad said the campus, which gets significant financial support from Kamehameha Schools, is focusing this school year on “making conscious adjustments” to improve student achievement.

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