Hawaii’s plan for complying with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act got the federal nod of approval Friday, four months after the 135-page document was submitted to the U.S. Department of Education.

The document lays out the state’s plan for complying with ESSA, which in 2015 replaced the No Child Left Behind Act. The law, which extends federal funding, requires states to help disadvantaged students but unlike its precursor, gives states greater flexibility in setting goals for student academic growth and improvement in areas like English language proficiency and graduation rates.

Hawaii’s ESSA plan was shaped by its Strategic Plan for 2017-2020 and Gov. David Ige’s Blueprint for Education, the long-range document outlining the state’s goals for public education. The state ESSA plan is based on federal indicators like academic achievement and high school graduation rates.

Hawaii has also thrown in chronic absenteeism as a measure of school quality under its accountability plan.

Queen Liliuokalani Building. Board of Education offices. 16 june 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
The Board of Education Building downtown. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos telephoned Hawaii school Superintendent Christina Kishimoto and Ige late last week, informing them of federal approval.

“She gave me a call yesterday and said congratulations, Christina, I’m happy to say the plan is approved, it looks great, so that’s great,” Kishimoto told Civil Beat on Saturday at an education empowerment conference organized by the Education Institute of Hawaii.

Hawaii is set to receive $81.3 million this year in ESSA funds. Federal funding accounts for 14 percent of Hawaii’s $1.9 billion education operating budget. The majority, 81 percent, comes from state funding.

The state had submitted its ESSA plan to the feds in mid-September. Late last month, it received initial feedback from the U.S. Department of Education seeking additional details on aspects of the plan that relate to homeless students, migratory students and the graduation rate of certain student subgroups, among other things.

Other states received feedback on their own plans.

In an attachment to that interim letter, the U.S. DOE supplied more detailed feedback to Hawaii through something called a peer review, the goal of which was to “provide objective feedback on the technical, educational and overall quality of the state plan and to advise the (USDOE) on the ultimate approval of the plan.”

In those notes, evaluators focused a more critical lens on Hawaii’s plan for measuring student improvement in its ESSA plan. For instance, state officials indicate they plan to raise the language arts proficiency rate among children with disabilities from its current 13 percent to 57 percent by 2024-25, or among English language learners from its current 21 percent to 61 percent by that same year.

“While admirable, these goals may be difficult to achieve in the subgroups without ensuring the appropriate services are available to support all students learning,” the peer review states. “The application indicates as such, but does not include specifics in how the schools will be supported to do so.”

Additionally, the state ESSA plan says it plans to hike English learners’ progress in English proficiency from its current 36 percent to 75 percent by 2024-25.

“It is not clear what the basis for this goal is,” the peer review states. “The state does not present a specific timeline for ELs to reach English language proficiency. Timelines appear to be based on initial (English language proficiency) level in some manner, but this is not sufficiently explained.”

Civil Beat asked the Hawaii Department of Education what revisions it made to its ESSA plan in light of the feedback, but had not received a response late Monday afternoon.

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