What is really needed to fight isles' dismal test scores
THE TEST scores of Hawaii's public school students released last month have created much more of a stir than did the failing marks on the state's standards and assessments system issued by a federal panel of experts a few weeks earlier. The latter seem to have been pretty much written off by our Department of Education as just a matter of insufficient documentation. But what the federal panel found wrong with our standards and assessment system was a great deal more than just a matter of missing documentation. And these shortcomings might play a substantial part in the disappointing test scores.
The panel concluded that "the evidence provided does not demonstrate coherency of the assessments used in Hawaii, nor the coherency of the academic content and achievement standards." And it's not simply a matter of insufficient evidence.
Hawaii has far too many standards for each discipline, and too many of them simply resemble lists of facts, with too little integration of concepts and processes across disciplines. This makes it unnecessarily difficult for teachers to prepare students for success in college or the workplace. How can we realistically expect better student outcomes when our standards are, as the federal panel found, "incoherent"?
Moreover, since the year 2000, our DOE has changed both the standards and the tests used to judge student performance based on those standards every single year. That's like trying to change every tire and continually repaint the SUV as it rolls down the highway! That's counterproductive, and it's terribly unfair to teachers and students.
The team of national experts also discovered that the DOE has systematically been fudging the numbers by excluding significant groups of students from testing. This artificially inflates Hawaii's participation rates and group scores. For example, in order to raise its scores, Hawaii has been leaving out repeating 10th-graders and homeless students, and that's just the beginning. Other students have been excluded "at the discretion of the principal." This has made it impossible to determine whether Hawaii is meeting the minimum Adequate Yearly Progress requirement of a 95 percent participation rate. Moreover, Hawaii lacks basic enrollment information, making required monitoring impossible.
We ask our students to learn from good role models. Why shouldn't the Hawaii DOE be expected to do the same? Take North Carolina, for instance. Compared to North Carolina, a state that has been lauded for its standards, Hawaii has far too many standards for each discipline. Because of the sheer number of Hawaii's standards, it is impossible to design tests to assess all of them. North Carolina has created a coherent assessment system that addresses all of its standards and includes well-defined regular and alternative assessments.
In contrast, according to the federal reviewers, Hawaii creates assessments that can address only one reading and one writing evaluation out of its senselessly long list of standards for every subject and every grade level!
We want to be clear that ours is by no means a plea for lowered standards. If anything, it is a recommendation for higher standards that would require students to do more than memorize facts.
Until Hawaii has coherent standards, honest accounting and a modicum of stability, it will not be possible to rely on the numbers we get to tell us how our students are doing. So instead of worrying about poor test scores, let's first try to design a set of standards and an assessment system that will give us more valid test scores. As the federal panel also recommended, let's involve all the stakeholders who are entitled to be involved in doing so.
And then, for heaven's sake, let's leave this in place long enough to give it a fair "test" to see if it works. And we've got to make sure that all this gets done soon enough to get an acceptable response to the feds in time to prevent a repeat of the Felix debacle with the sort of "mandatory oversight" it brought -- because something like that might be what's hanging over our heads now.
Nina Buchanan is a professor in the Education Department at the University of Hawaii-Hilo. Mary Anne Raywid is on the graduate affiliate faculty of the College of Education at the University of Hawaii-Manoa.