Test scores give
schools hope

As test standards rise each year,
rewards for improvement are
already gaining prominence

Jarrett Middle School didn't actually meet state academic targets this year, but it received what amounts to an "A" for effort.

Like many schools in the state, the Palolo campus fell short of the high-stakes targets schools must hit each year, but earned a passing grade thanks to a rule that rewards significant improvements in scores on state tests.

It's a little-known loophole in the state and federal performance requirements that are often portrayed as an either-or, pass-fail scenario.

And it could gain in importance in the years ahead as the actual targets rise far beyond what many schools are now achieving.

"It gives schools a sense of hope that, 'hey, we are making progress, we're doing great things'," said Jarrett's principal, Gerald Teramae.

Just as important, the "safe harbor" provision, as it is called, helps schools stave off sanctions that would otherwise be applied under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

The law requires that state-determined percentages of students prove "proficient" in reading and math on state tests administered each spring.

Annual failure to hit the targets moves schools along a sanctions process culminating in reform imposed from outside.

"Safe harbor" already is becoming a factor.

Just 94 of the state's 282 traditional and charter public schools achieved the full targets, known as Adequate Yearly Progress, this year. That's the lowest number yet, largely due to the raised bar.

Of the 94, about one-fifth would have missed the targets if not for the "safe harbor" provision.

Hitting the targets will only get more difficult. This year the targets call for 44 percent of students to meet proficiency expectations for reading, and 28 percent for math -- up from 30 and 10 percent, respectively, last year.

The targets will continue to rise steadily to 100 percent by 2014.

But with many Hawaii schools still in the teens or single digits, "safe harbor" could become an increasingly realistic way of staying in compliance.

"That hasn't gotten a lot of attention, but we'll start seeing schools across the country looking at that more," said Kathy Christie, vice president of the research arm of the non-partisan Education Commission of the States.

"Even if they're not meeting the absolute goals, they can hit safe harbor and stay out of trouble. It's not as scary a thing for schools," she said.

School principals and the state Department of Education deny that schools will strive for anything less than achieving the full targets. But it looms in the minds of some principals.

"We will continue to try for the targets, but safe harbor would be the next goal if we knew couldn't hit them," said Principal Stanley Kayatani of Kalihi-Kai Elementary.

Some of the schools that squeaked by via "safe harbor" this year were among those whose successes were trumpeted most loudly by education officials last week when it released statewide Adequate Yearly Progress data.

They include several schools on the economically strapped Waianae coast, and a number of campuses that were either undergoing No Child Left Behind's ultimate corrective sanctions or on the brink of it.

Many schools continued to struggle, particularly in math. But even many that did not achieve Adequate Yearly Progress showed solid improvement this year.

All of this should be especially encouraging to state officials since new U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has indicated that the federal government may begin to place more emphasis on such improvement.

She recently appointed a top-level committee to hammer out a potential "growth model" that could give states even more options in using year-to-year improvement as a basis for claiming success.

States are pushing the federal department to come up with something quickly, hopefully by next year, so that schools can make appropriate adjustments as soon as possible.

For Hawaii schools, the question ultimately will be whether improvements can be sustained.

"No matter how the rules might be changed, you still have to have growth," said Christie.

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