At the Hawaii Department of Education’s first-ever data retreat Thursday, the academic performance of high needs students was a major area of focus.

High needs students — those who are English language learners, students with disabilities and those from economically disadvantaged families — make up 57% of the students in Hawaii public schools.

Of the one-quarter of DOE students who struggle with third grade literacy, nearly 71% are considered economically disadvantaged. Of the 46% of students who did not show proficiency in reading in 2019, nearly 20% are classified special education. And of the 43% of students who were proficient in math in 2019, only 5% were English learners.

Those are just some of the statistics presented at the retreat, which unfolded much like a regular Board of Education meeting, except for a change in location (it was held at the co-working space Waiwai Collective), the length (clocking in at almost 5 hours) and the number of those presenting (several assistant superintendents rather than just one or two on a specific topic).

Board members and DOE officials sit together at the first-ever data retreat at Waiwai Collective in central Honolulu. 

The purpose behind the retreat was for the DOE to present board members with more comprehensive data on student achievement in an informal and immersive setting.

“The environment is really important for the process sometimes. It lent itself to conversations during the breaks,” BOE Chairwoman Catherine Payne said after the event concluded.

Asked whether she felt she and her colleagues had a better understanding of DOE priorities, she responded, “I think we have a beginning of an understanding.”

Test Scores Show Little Improvement

The retreat follows the recent release of results from the “Smarter Balanced Assessments,” which are based on Hawaii Common Core standards, and Hawaii’s fourth and eighth-graders’ performance in reading and math on the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP.

Year-over-year progress overall on those two tests was fairly negligible among Hawaii public school students.

The retreat served as a jumping off point to delve deeper into what those numbers mean.

For instance, one presentation revealed that the highest percentage of disadvantaged students reside on Big Island (72%). About 98% of the schools there, or 40 total, are Title I, meaning nearly half the student population at that school is eligible to receive free or reduced price lunch.

That same slide also shows that Hawaii’s public charter schools comprise the biggest proportion of Hawaii public schools requiring “comprehensive support and improvement”, which is based on low proficiency scores in language arts and math.

Charter school students comprise 6% of the total public school population in the state.

Some education board members wanted more analysis on the data presented.

“Basically, what does it mean?” Nolan Kawano said during a break.

He had asked department officials to offer more insight into the academic performance of Hawaii’s older students — not just those at the third grade. He noted that as students progress up grade levels, they may either drop out of school or matriculate in private school, so all the needs and supports between third and eighth grades need to be better tracked.

“What are the social and economic resources they need?” Kawano said.

“If there are family problems, true economic problems,” certain innovative approaches in education may not matter as much to those families as social services do, he pointed out.

One illuminating slide was a scatter plot graph showing positive outliers: schools with a high percentage of economically disadvantaged students but also high reading or math proficiency overall. Those schools include Kalihi Uka Elementary, Pauoa Elementary and Laie Elementary, to name a few.

But education officials weren’t able to offer any additional information on how those schools got to where they are today.

“What’s happening at the micro level?” asked school board member Bruce Voss. “Is it a superstar principal?”

The DOE is in the midst of coming up with its next 10-year strategic plan, covering the years 2020 to 2030. It is building on community input to come up with revised success “indicators” to measure student success in the public school system.

During a community meeting at the conclusion of the data retreat, a discussion led by education advocates Cheri Nakamura of the He’e Coalition and HawaiiKidsCAN founding executive director David Miyashiro offered a glimpse of those potential future indicators.

They include things like a 10-year facilities plan, enrollment in pre-K, and middle school after-school programming. Another future indicator is the presence of internships and externships with Hawaii industry leaders.

Miyashiro, along with Nakamura and a coalition of other education advocates, has urged the DOE to provide a more robust statistical analysis of why the department fell flat in most areas of the current strategic plan, covering 2017 to 2020.

“My hope is we’re able to leverage this as a launching point for real constructive action,” Miyashiro said, of the data retreat. “The talk was good but I’m more interested in where we want to go.”

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