Last month’s release of Hawaii student performance results on the 2019 “Nation’s Report Card” showed little change from the previous assessment in 2017, except in one area: reading and math scores among Hawaii’s fourth grade English language learners.

English learners at that grade level posted double digit gains in both subjects, a spike that was so dramatic, even Hawaii’s own testing officials took pause.

“The jump increase was so big, I double checked it. I wanted to make sure the data was accurate,” said Dewey Gottlieb, Hawaii state coordinator for the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Kaahumanu Elementary School ELL classes in the school library.
In this June 2018 photo, a Queen Kaahumanu Elementary School ELL class works in the school library. More than one-third of the student body is comprised of English learners. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

Although the rise covers only a short interval of time, state education officials believe it reflects a recent policy shift in the Hawaii Department of Education that changed the criteria for evaluating English language learners as proficient.

The criteria is more rigorous, meaning English learners are receiving support services for a longer period of time. That could translate into a greater number of English learners attaining higher levels of proficiency before being allowed to join their non-EL peers in the academic environment.

“I think one of the things that may be related to the increase in NAEP scores is students are staying in the EL program longer, receiving services longer and it’s more on par with national expectations,” Gottlieb said.

Hawaii’s English Learner program is intended to have students reach English proficiency in five years, with schools monitoring students’ progress for two years after that.

The exit criteria policy shift could serve as a benefit to the roughly 16,578 English learners in the state education system, or 9% of the total DOE student body — a subpopulation that keeps growing.

But what complicates that picture is the overall need for stronger English learner services, specifically, more highly qualified instructors in this area, according to a recent fact sheet compiled by experts in the DOE.

Among the active 809 English learner staff in 2016-17, it’s estimated only 66 were licensed Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, or TESOL, according to a Consolidated State Performance Report sent to federal officials that year. Far more were credentialed with just a bachelor’s degree, worked as teachers who accrued 12 or more ELL/multicultural education credits or were educational assistants. (Clarification: A previous version of this story relied on an older “self-reported” figure TESOL teachers submitted to the state DOE.)

“An analysis of HI’s (English Learner) programming unveils a resounding need to improve various programmatic elements within EL education,” the fact sheet states. Priority areas include “adequate staffing, intentional messaging and appropriate expenditure of funds,” the report continued.

More Attention On ELL

The double digit gains on the NAEP among English learner fourth graders surfaces at a time of focus on this group of students — identified as a “high needs group” — by the state DOE.

The Nation’s Report Card is administered by the National Center for Education Statistics, an arm of the U.S. Department of Education, that is periodically given to students across the country.

Due to the uniformity of the test, the NAEP is seen as a yardstick to measure how students are doing in academic performance relative to their peers elsewhere.

Hawaii school superintendent Christina Kishimoto has made English language learners a priority during her first three years of administration. She formed an “ELL task force” in 2017 to study the short and long-term solutions for improving services for these students.

The state’s English learner population is one of the country’s most diverse as far as the sheer number of languages that are prevalent among large groups of students.

The most common native language among English learners here is Ilocano, followed by Chuukese, Marshallese, Tagalog and Spanish, according to state data.

The Hawaii DOE steered $13.9 million in weighted student formula funding for English learners in the 2017-18 school year and received $4.2 million in federal funding for these students, based on a 2016-17 figure.

Whether the recent double-digit NAEP increase among EL fourth graders — which was just a sample of the total population — is solely due to the new reclassification criteria, or the result of specific strategies at the school level that are working, is too early to tell.

“We’re not quite there yet, but we’re still working on getting to a place where we can say with confidence whether or not these gains are due to some type of change that may be happening at the school level,” said Brian Reiter, the DOE’s state testing coordinator.

“Our subgroup populations for socioeconomic status and EL and special education … have been changing over time and sometimes that makes analysis a little more tricky,” he added.

Fourth grade English learners’ reading scores on the NAEP rose by 26 points and by 13 points in math in two years, while across the nation, the average point increase among their counterparts was just two points in both subject areas.

On the annual state assessment known as the Smarter Balanced Assessment, Hawaii’s “recently exited” English learners also showed improvement between 2017 and 2019, although the data is for students across grade levels.

One School’s Strategies

Some DOE schools are putting extra focus on their English learner students. At Kalihi Uka Elementary, 13% of the student body is classified as English learners, mostly of Filipino ethnicity.

Hokulani Elementary School kids. No ID.
Students at Hokulani Elementary School. The rise in NAEP scores among fourth grade English learners may be attributable in part to tougher requirements to exit out of the EL program. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Students at the Title I school — where more than two-thirds of students qualify for free and reduced lunch — far outpace their peers in the state when it comes to math, reading and science proficiency, by as many as 33 percentage points in the lattermost category.

Many of its current programs were implemented under former principal Laura Ahn, a fixture there for nine years.

Some of the strategies deployed at the school, included “Target Time,” a 30-minute period each day to give kids time to catch up in a subject; guided reading for English learners to teach phonemic awareness and decoding skills; science tutoring for three consecutive months; and after-school math tutoring for third, fourth and fifth graders.

The idea was to embrace a school culture where everyone, down to the kindergarten teacher and even the vice principal, played a role in tutoring or literacy instruction, according to Ahn, now principal at Niu Valley Middle.

“Everyone put in their all,” she said, adding that English learner students were exiting the program each year.

Kalihi Uka, which received a 2018 National Blue Ribbon designation, is continuing many of these same programs, although the current principal, Derek Santos, did not respond to a request for comment.

Hawaii is part of a consortium of states that uses a system of English language proficiency standards and benchmarks known as the World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment, or WIDA.

It’s the system that screens and identifies English learners from kindergarten up to 12th grade and also assesses whether a student is “proficient” in English and can exit out of the ELL program.

Several years ago, when WIDA updated the scale of its English language proficiency test, Hawaii’s DOE toughened its criteria for exiting a student from an EL program.

It requires students to score a “5” out of a possible “6” on the WIDA proficiency scale to be determined as “functionally English proficient” and therefore, eligible to exit out of an EL program.

In the 2015-16 school year, 3,467 English learners in Hawaii exited out of the EL program based on the old scoring rubric. By the 2016-17 school year, under the new scale, just 357 English learners in Hawaii exited out of the EL program, a near 90% reduction in size from the last group.

That means just a tiny smidgen — a little over 2% — of Hawaii’s English learners were reclassified as non-ELL, compared with up to as many as a quarter of such students in prior years.

Under the new WIDA proficiency scale, other states saw their EL exit rates plummet, causing education experts to question whether the new test was too demanding.

In Hawaii, the English learner exit numbers have since gone up in recent years. In 2018-19, 961 English learners, or 5% of the total EL population, successfully left the program. It suggests that teachers and schools are adapting to the higher expectations.

As for why eighth grade English learners didn’t experience the same kind of gains on the NAEP, policy officials believe that younger students are easier to reach.

“We know it’s easier for elementary grade students to attain proficiency and it just becomes more difficult as they progress,” Andreas Wiegand, educational specialist and EL Program & Project Director for the Hawaii DOE, said.

“At the same time, we need to address the needs of the population (that end up in high school) that we’ve kind of ignored.”

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