Sinking test scores show pandemic impact on Hawaii students

Always Investigating

HONOLULU (KHON2) — Learning across public schools in Hawaii plummeted during the pandemic. New test scores and screenings show huge losses in math and reading. Always Investigating breaks down the numbers.

Results of both the annual statewide test scores, as well as much more recent results of what are called “universal screeners,” both show the same urgent problem: erosion across core subjects and even worse for disadvantaged and minority gap groups.

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The toll that more than a year of pandemic disruption has taken on Hawaii’s public school students is sobering: a record 26% change for the worse in math proficiency, 20% down in science, and 7% for language arts. These are the results of StriveHI scores based on tests taken earlier this year and just revealed in agendas for an upcoming Board of Education monthly meeting.

“I think the most important thing is that it validates the fact that having time with an effective teacher is important for student success,” said Lisa Morrison, secretary-treasurer for the Hawaii State Teachers Association and an arts and communication teacher at Maui High School. “That’s the major takeaway.”

A Department of Education spokesperson told KHON2 they didn’t want to talk about it before Thursday’s board meeting. But in documents and memos to the board, DOE officials say: “Over the next few years, we will get a better sense of the ‘recovery rate,’ and how long it will take to return to 2019 levels.”

The scores show that may be a bigger challenge for certain groups, with Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students, Micronesians and the homeless seeing the biggest drops in scores. There are red flags in all of the data. Test participation plummeted. More than one in five kids simply opted out, leaving a participation rate at only 78% statewide.

“Some parents rightly decided that after a whole year of keeping their kids home to keep them safe, they sure as heck weren’t going to send them for a test that actually has nothing to do with the student’s grade,” Morrison said, “and there are no consequences. Looking at these participation rates, they’re so low in some of the at-risk subgroups, that the losses that people are going ‘oh wow’ about are not accurate enough to actually matter. There were some schools where they couldn’t even hit the number of students needed to participate to have a breakout in that subgroup.”

DOE officials wrote to the board: “The pandemic’s impact on instruction and learning had an effect on teachers and students, and those conditions should be considered when examining student achievement and school performance results.”

Such conditions include how education was or was not delivered. Thousands of students had either no internet access, no device, or neither during the height of distance learning. There was a spike in chronic absenteeism — up 20% among all students but a whopping 77% for Micronesians, 72% for English learners, 55% for Pacific Islanders.

“At least last year, there was the idea that, hey, we do need to send some stuff home,” Morrison said. “We do need to give them those home wi-fi hotspots so that they do have access to the internet. This year, there was not a distribution plan.”

All of this information comes from a shortened version of the annual statewide assessments done earlier this year, after the DOE and many districts nationwide skipped the 2019-20 testing cycle entirely.

The StriveHI tests are not longitudinal, meaning they are not tracking the same student year to year. Rather the results are just comparisons of how collective sets of test-takers performed at that particular time in their grade-level, a fact that adds caution to interpreting the results as “learning loss” related to 2019.

“The reason I’m hesitant to call it learning loss is it depends on what the definition is,” Morrison said. “The department hasn’t actually produced a definition that they go by for learning loss. They have no working definition for this term that they keep throwing around. This actually isn’t showing a difference in what they might have learned the year before. Those would come out in screeners.”

More recently the DOE conducted other assessments as part of its pandemic intervention and acceleration plan. Those “universal screeners” of nearly 90,000 kids in grades 1 through 8 wrapped up as recently as Sept. 30, but the results aren’t too far off from what the annual snapshot test scores tracked: Only 33% of students in language arts and 25% in math scored at or above grade level.

Another 34% are one grade level behind and the remaining 32% are two or more grade levels behind in language arts. In math, nearly 43% screened one grade level behind, and one third are two or more grade levels behind.

Interim Superintendent Keith Hayashi wrote to the board:  “Once students are identified as performing one or more grade levels behind, schools may provide intervention…” and they’ve lined up three tiers of help from in-class and summer programs to get everyone caught up, to more targeted block and small-group instruction or tutoring, to more intensive one on one support. The screeners will re-occur in January and May.

The test-score trends in Hawaii mirror what’s been seen nationwide, and the DOE says it is “working with other national organizations to further study (the pandemic’s) impact on learning.”

Teachers caution against reading too much into point-in-time high-stakes StriveHI testing.

“I think it is pretty important to remember that the reason that we do the big end-of-the-year standardized test is for federal compliance only,” Morrison said. “It really doesn’t provide as much helpful and important information for teachers to give to their students what they need as things that would be in classroom: tests, things created by teachers, where they can assess the things that they plan to cover.”

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Among “pandemic-related considerations” the DOE plans to emphasize to the board at this Thursday’s meeting are the following, excerpted from the DOE’s presentation slides:

“•Decrease in language arts, math, and science scores

• The 2021 result of 26 percent of English learners having ‘Met” Growth-To-Target has decreased from prior years

• For HSA-Alt and KAEO students’ growth for language arts and math coincidentally were the same within each of the assessments at 51% and 48% respectively

• Both 3rd and 8th grade literacy increased from 2019. Third grade as a one point increase to 76% while 8th grade presented a notable 7 point increase to 77%

• Drop in 9th grade promotions, from 93% to 85%

• Steady annual increase in students completing a Career and Technical Education program

• The 2020 cohort graduation rate increased by 1 percentage point for the third straight year in a row

• The college-going rate decreased by 5 percentage points from 2020 where it remained stable at 55% since 2017”

2020-21 StriveHI test results can be seen here.

Fall 2021 “universal screener” results can be seen here.

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