The frustrations are palpable: hours sucked out of classroom instruction time to prepare for multiple statewide assessments; school facilities unavailable for use due to reserved test taking; anxiety weighing on students subject to an average 10 standardized tests a year.

Many teachers across Hawaii contend the number of statewide assessments given to their students, as early as the first grade, detracts from instruction, provides little valuable feedback and puts kids from a lower socioeconomic rung at a disadvantage.

The Hawaii State Teachers Association is pushing House Bill 2117 that would limit the number of statewide assessments given to students to four per year. The only exceptions would be tests required under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act and tests for disabled students or English language learners.

The measure is scheduled for a full Senate vote on Tuesday.

Ala Wai Elementary school 4th graders kids students.
House Bill 2117, which proposes capping the number of standardized tests per year, comes up for a full Senate vote on Tuesday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The bill would also require the state to conduct a survey to determine how much classroom time is devoted to test prep.

A Legacy of No Child Left Behind

Hawaii’s current testing culture traces back to the era of the federal No Child Left Behind law, when Hawaii won a $75 million Race to the Top grant that established performance outcomes tied to test scores.

Although No Child Left Behind last year was replaced by ESSA, which gives states broader leeway in determining how to measure student achievement, testing requirements weren’t shed.

“The culture hasn’t changed,” said HSTA president Corey Rosenlee. “If your school failed (at these tests), it creates this atmosphere where the principals are being told, ‘You’re not doing a good job, you have to raise your test scores.’”

“(Federal) legislation created this mess, and it’ll take Hawaii legislation to reverse it.”

Some longtime educators concur there may be too much standardized testing in Hawaii, but that legislation is not the way to address the issue.

“I’m in agreement we’re over-testing in some areas, but what I’d want to look at is if all the tests being done are mandated by board policy, or are they done by the school,” said incoming state Board of Education chairwoman Catherine Payne. “It’s easy to say, ‘Too much testing,’ but that has to be really looked at.”

“I’m not sure a law is the best way to do this… I believe this is something that can be done through collaboration between the board and teachers.”

Hawaii principal evaluations are partly tied to student test achievement. Schools may also administer optional tests beyond what is minimally required, causing a wide discrepancy among schools across the state.

In written testimony, the Hawaii Department of Education has requested HB 2117 be deferred, saying it has reduced state-mandated tests to the federal minimum and started working with the complex area superintendents to “ensure that the appropriate number and types of tests are administered to students.”

“The Department recognizes the value of standardized testing as a valid, reliable, and efficient means to ensure that students graduate equipped for college and career success,” it wrote in one comment. “Outside of standardized test results, no objective measure exists for policymakers to identify student academic achievement.”

Another education board member, Margaret Cox, a former teacher, also submitted testimony as an individual in opposition to the bill. She said standardized tests, unlike other kinds, “are not for learning” and that a statewide cap “inappropriately lumps all testing together.”

“Other types of testing, like diagnostic, formative, and end-of-unit assessment are for student learning and individual schools should have control over these types of testing,” Cox wrote.

How Many Tests Are Too Many?

In testimony to the Legislature this session, teachers across Hawaii offered a glimpse into how statewide assessments have impacted their classrooms.

Jensen Hirayama, an elementary school teacher on Oahu, said he’s seen “way too many students suffer from test-taking anxiety.”

Alan Isbell, a fourth-grade teacher at Wailuku Elementary and president of the Maui chapter of the HSTA, said, “We spend an appalling amount of time on the standardized testing, not only proctoring but preparing, and facilities are taken away for the whole school to have done it.”

As a test proctor, Isbell said he saw students worn out from the frequent test-taking. “They’ll show up, take the test — bubble, bubble, bubble — and not read the questions,” he said.

HSTA President Corey Rosenlee center during press conference held on 22 may 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
HSTA President Corey Rosenlee said there is far too much testing done at the schools, and those tests don’t provide valuable feedback to teachers. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Here is what is mandatory: the Smarter Balanced Assessment in third through eighth grades and 11th grade in math and English Language Arts.

There is also a Hawaii State Assessment in Science given to fourth- and eighth-graders and an end-of-course Biology I exam required of high-schoolers to measure proficiency in state science standards.

Beyond these required exams, there’s a variety of optional assessments. Those include STAR Literacy and Math, a computer-based assessment done three times a year; Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills; and Dolch Sight Words, which measures reading proficiency.

Jennie Hancock told legislators she has to give all of those tests to her first-graders. Hancock, who teaches at Waikoloa Elementary & Middle on the Big Island, said she spends “hours each quarter” giving the tests.

“My students are 6 and 7 years old,” Hancock wrote in testimony. “They developmentally cannot handle the hours of formal assessments I’m forced to perform on them. I’m changing my verb from ‘administer’ to ‘perform’ because seriously, it’s a dance getting all of this done.”

Of the 1,764 teachers who responded to a teachers’ union survey in February, nearly two-thirds said they used regular classroom time to prepare kids for standardized tests. More than half said standard instruction in subjects like art, music or social studies were reduced as a result.

The HSTA’s survey found that an average of 10 tests were given annually to any one student in the 2016-17 school year, with some teachers saying they administered as many as 30 such tests that same year.

Additionally, 82 percent of teachers surveyed said they didn’t feel “involved in decision-making processes about how tests are used at their schools.”

“Teachers in our survey feel that most of the tests were not beneficial, that they were not giving them valuable feedback,” Rosenlee said.

Hawaii has made some moves to revise its state testing portfolio. A new version of the SBA this year reduced the average test-taking time by one and half hours. Hawaii also ended the voluntary assessments of the National Assessment of Education Progress tests, though mandatory versions of that test are given to fourth- and eighth-graders in odd-numbered years. It also made the ACT college admissions exam for Grade 11 optional this year.

Hawaii initially expressed interest in applying this year for a pilot federal program that allows some states to revamp testing frameworks and base it around a more inquiry- or project-based learning. But a DOE spokeswoman said the department would delay submitting its application until 2019.

Thoughts on this or any other story? Write a Letter to the Editor. Send to and put Letter in the subject line. 200 words max. You need to use your name and city and include a contact phone for verification purposes. And you can still comment on stories on our Facebook page.

About the Author