Despite soaring rates of absent students, schools were able to make strides in student achievement last year according to test results from the 2021-22 school year released on Wednesday. 

The state’s annual Strive HI report showed academic proficiency increased across the board from the year before, but scores stopped short of pre-pandemic numbers, a recovery that Department of Education Deputy Superintendent Tammi Oyadomari-Chun said research indicates will take three years. 

In the 2021-22 school year, more than a third of Hawaii students were chronically absent from school, meaning they missed 15 or more days of class. That’s a significant jump from the year before, when only 18% of students were counted as chronically absent.

Just over half of students in Hawaii — 52% — were deemed proficient in language arts, up from 50% in 2020. The percentage of students proficient in math rose 6 percentage points to 38%.

Third grade student raises their hand in Kaneohe Elementary School 3rd grade substitute teacher Angela Isaacson's class as she asked questions to her class.
Hawaii schools showed modest gains in student achievement after sharp decreases earlier in the pandemic. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

High needs students — a category that includes English language learners, economically disadvantaged students, and those receiving special education services — also saw improvements in test scores, but performed 37 percentage points below their peers in language arts and 29 points lower in math. 

HawaiiKidsCAN Executive Director David Sun-Miyashiro said that Hawaii’s learning gap was a stubborn issue before the pandemic and continues to be.

He emphasized the importance of ensuring targeted supports for disadvantaged students who have been increasingly left behind during the pandemic. The DOE has until 2024 to use $412 million in federal pandemic relief funding, a large part of which is specifically earmarked for helping disadvantaged students with both academic and social emotional development. 

Sun-Miyashiro says that a renewed emphasis on growth, spurred by poor performance over the last two years, has taken hold in the state. This emphasis, especially for students most in need of individualized wraparound support that addresses social and emotional health, could be just what the state’s education system needed to upend years of stagnant academic performance. 

“I think this mindset of acceleration and wraparound supports and addressing learning loss can actually be front and center for the department, even as we transition out of the heart of the pandemic,” he said. “I think that’ll actually put us on a really nice track to not just recover, but potentially surpass where we were before Covid hit.”

Big Spikes In Students Missing Class

Schools across the country saw an increase in student absenteeism last year, but to a lesser degree than Hawaii. Nationwide about 17% of students were chronically absent from class in the 2021-22 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Before the pandemic, 15% of Hawaii students were chronically absent, more closely mirroring national trends. 

The DOE is attributing the massive spike in absenteeism to the delta and omicron variants, which had an outsized effect on elementary school students because their age group had less access to vaccines for the first half of the school year, according to a press release from the department. 

Absenteeism varied significantly from school to school. Linapuni Elementary in Honolulu recorded 92% chronic absenteeism, the highest in the state, while other schools like Wheeler Middle School in Wahiawa recorded rates as low as 10%.

Lisa Morrison, who taught at Maui High last year, said kids were absent on a rolling basis, after “Covid just ripped through the building,” two separate times. 

The DOE cited Covid-19 as the main reason for students missing class, because spikes in absences consistently mirrored peaks in infection rates. 

A bus driver shortage that affected half of Hawaii island schools was also cited by the DOE as driving up absenteeism. 

The DOE did not provide data on the number of schools that offered blended in-person and virtual learning programs or virtual learning to students who were out sick.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed the following quotes to Deputy Superintendent Tammi Oyadomari-Chun, when it was in fact a spokeswoman for the department speaking. 

DOE Spokeswoman Nanea Kalani said many teachers felt overburdened by the expectation of providing virtual learning for absent students while teaching in the classroom.

“There was consensus that that was very challenging for a lot of teachers, and so I think it was more case by case by school if schools could pull that off,” Kalani said. 

Some Schools Excelled

While the state saw modest gains overall, some schools managed to post double digit increases in student achievement.

Wheeler Middle School saw significant growth in proficiency: an 11 percentage point increase to 77% in English language arts, 18 points to 57% in math, and 6 points to 67% in science. 

Wheeler also had one of the lowest achievement gaps in the state for language arts. 

More than two-thirds of the school’s high needs students were proficient in language arts. That’s 17 points higher than the state average for all students. 

Principal Brenda Vierra-Chun attributed that success to intensive interventions, data, and keeping students in the classroom. 

Kaunakakai Elementary on Molokai saw double-digit growth across all subjects despite a high chronic absenteeism rate of 63%. Principal Daniel Espaniola said the increase was due to dedicated teachers, flexibility and virtual learning.

“Our teachers recorded their lessons, tutors FaceTimed with students, and we made sure every kid had a device at school and a device at home,” Espaniola said.

The school used its federal funding to provide hotspots to families without internet at home. 

Similar to Kaunakakai Elementary, Vierra-Chun says Wheeler did home visits, had meetings with parents, and took advantage of the federal financial support to offer the wraparound services Sun-Miyashiro is hedging his bets on. 

“I truly hope we can continue this great momentum we’re having,”  Espaniola said. 

Civil Beat’s education reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.

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