The results are in. Hawaii’s public school students suffered dramatic drops in proficiency in core subjects in the nearly two years since the Covid-19 pandemic began, reflecting severe setbacks in academic progress ahead of the resumption of full in-person learning in August.

Only 50% of students who took the Smarter Balanced Assessments in the spring were proficient in language arts, which comprises reading comprehension and literacy, in 2021 compared with 54% in 2019. Only 32% of students were proficient in math in 2021 compared with 43% of students in 2019, while only 35% of students were proficient in science compared with 44% two years ago.

The decreases were even more stark among some Indigenous Pacific communities. Math proficiency among Micronesians, which include Marshallese, Pohnpeian and Chuukese students, dropped by more than half, from 15% in 2019 to 7% in the spring. Native Hawaiian students saw their math proficiency dip to 16% from 26% in 2019.

Aliiolani Elementary School students wait outside the classrooms before the start of the first day of school.
SBA test results from the 2021 school year reflected a sharp drop in academic performance during the pandemic, especially in math and science. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The data was taken from the spring 2021 Smarter Balanced Assessments, which are based on Hawaii Common Core Standards. The tests are administered annually to students in third through eighth grades and the 11th grade. Hawaii, like many other states, received a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education to skip the tests in 2020 due to the mass confusion after the pandemic began.

Overall, all students who tested suffered a double-digit percent change in math and science proficiency since 2019, while results were slightly better in language arts.

No student subgroup experienced gains in reading, math or science over the last two years.

“The early data from this school year are a real cause for concern,” said Alex Harris, vice president of programs at the Harold K.L. Castle Foundation. “Far too many students are off track and it’s going to take the entire community mobilizing to help young people to recover.”

‘Little Margin For Error’

The public school system enrolled 174,700 students in the 2020-21 school year, which saw most students continue with distance learning or blended remote and in-person learning. Aware of the challenges this posed, DOE officials stressed the need to get kids back in school starting in August due to widespread learning loss, and most kids are now back on campus.

Pre-pandemic, the student participation rate for these tests was at least 95%. But this spring, the participation rate ranged from just 68% to 91% across the three subject areas, prompting the DOE to note that the results “may not be proportionately representative of the student population.”

Principals and complex area superintendents received school-level reports in the first week of October. The DOE released the results publicly on Friday, and planned to present the findings to the Board of Education on Thursday.

DOE spokeswoman Nanea Kalani declined to comment on the results until after Thursday’s meeting.

DOE, student, education, Strive HI, Smarter Balanced Assessment
Student proficiency decreased in reading, math and science in 2021 compared with pre-pandemic results. Hawaii Department of Education

Other data points had varied results.

Chronic absenteeism, defined as missing 15 or more school days, was reported for 18% of students in the 2020-21 school year, compared with 12% in 2019-20 and 15% in 2018-19.

That figure nearly doubled for Micronesian students to about 50% who were chronically absent in 2020-21. English-learner students, who number about 16,000, also experienced a huge jump, with 29% chronically absent in the last school year, versus 17% two years ago.

The on-time high school graduation rate went up slightly, from 84% in 2019 to 86% in 2021. And 61% of the students completed a career and technical education program by the 12th grade, up from 56% in 2019.

But the SBA results — also known as “Strive HI” data — and a separate fall assessment known as universal screeners were what most concerns education advocates.

“Along with the universal screener academic data … today’s Strive HI results are extremely alarming,” HawaiiKidsCAN Executive Director David Miyashiro said in written testimony to the BOE. “Learning loss is real and profound, and it should be clear that significant action is needed to get students back on track.”

As pronounced as the academic setbacks were over the last year and a half, Miyashiro emphasized that progress in Hawaii has actually been “fairly stagnant since 2015.”

In fact, DOE officials convened a data retreat in 2019 to address the slow growth in academic progress in recent years, but there was no follow-up retreat or action plan.

“It’s understandable the Covid-19 pandemic has had a tremendous impact, but our system had very little margin for error prior to the pandemic,” Miyashiro added.

Universal Screeners

“Universal screeners” are given to students in grades 1-8 in math and language arts at three separate points in the school year to measure academic readiness. The first batch of these tests was given to students when they returned to campus in August, with the test window ending as recently as Sept. 30.

Based on those screener tests, just 25% of Hawaii students performed at their grade level in math and 33% of students were at their grade level in language arts. Nearly one-third of the students who took the universal screeners performed as low as two or more grade levels below in those subjects, according to the DOE data.

DOE, student, education, universal screener
Universal screeners are given to students in grades 1-8 at three points during the school year. This is from fall 2021. Hawaii Department of Education

As concerning as the Hawaii test results were, some Board of Education members called on the DOE to better parse the data to really identify which students need the most help in catching up.

“The Department should not assume certain categories were disproportionately impacted without analyzing existing data,” BOE member Kili Namauu wrote in a memo.

She noted that individual schools understand their students’ needs best and urged the DOE to encourage the development of new interventions and to provide more personalized resources using federal Covid aid.

The DOE received $412 million in the last round of federal pandemic aid through the American Rescue Plan Act, and officials are still hammering out how those funds will be expended before they lapse in 2024.

Namauu also urged DOE officials to come up with a new educational plan by December 2021 that includes new metrics to assess whether the students most negatively impacted by the pandemic are being served through additional academic and social support.

While the DOE developed a dashboard for the 2020-21 school year to measure the pandemic’s impact on things like grades and attendance, the department didn’t post disaggregated data other than separating out the economically disadvantaged, students with disabilities or English learners.

Namauu recommends the DOE now separate data based on student ethnicity or based on the level of social emotional learning needs.

This would allow the BOE to get “a clear picture of whether impacted student populations are making positive progress with the supplemental educational supports” provided by the federal funds, she said.

How Hawaii Compares On a National Scale

Students nationwide experienced stunted academic growth as a result of the pandemic between fall 2020 and spring 2021, according to a July 2021 policy brief by the national nonprofit, NWEA, which does research on assessment and student achievement trends.

The study, which drew upon a pool of 5.5 million U.S. public students in grades 3 to 8, observed that math declines were steeper than reading declines in that time frame with the biggest drops occurring at the elementary grade levels.

Marginalized and economically disadvantaged students suffered the most. Students of color, the researchers noted, “were less likely to be learning in person and more likely to encounter obstacles in accessing instruction.”

“The pandemic has exacerbated longstanding educational inequalities for marginalized students,” the researchers wrote. “The unequal impacts of the pandemic extend beyond education: communities of color were more likely to bear the economic and health consequences of the pandemic.”

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