While charter schools fall below the state average in reading and math proficiency, leaders and advocates look to alternate ways of measuring success.

Fewer than half of Hawaii charter schools students achieved proficiency in math and language arts last year. But although these schools fell short of state averages in math and reading, advocates argue that there’s more to charter schools than what’s measured in standardized test scores.

In the 2022-23 school year, 31% of charter school students achieved proficiency in math, and 47% achieved proficiency in language arts. In comparison, the state proficiency rate was 40% in math and 52% in language arts, according to the recently released 2022-23 Strive HI reports, which reflects the progress of all public school students in the state. 

“The scores are meaningful and they’re important and, yes, we want to do well,” said PJ Foehr, interim executive director of the State Public Charter School Commission. “That being said, I don’t put all of our weight into the performance of a school on the Strive HI assessment.” 

A recent study from the Journal of School Choice ranked states on charter schools’ performances on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a standardized test measuring fourth and eighth graders’ achievement in math and reading. Out of the 35 states included in the study, Hawaii ranked last. 

Kaohao Public Charter School was one charter school that exceeded the state averages in math and reading proficiency in the 2022-23 school year. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

According to the study, Hawaii students took in roughly one fewer day of instruction compared to the average charter school student between 2011 and 2019.

One factor is that several charter schools are also Hawaiian immersion schools, meaning that they primarily teach in Hawaiian, said Nina Buchanan, professor emerita at the University of Hawaii Hilo and a governing board member at West Hawaii Explorations Academy. As a result, she said, English-based standardized tests, like the NAEP, may not be the best reflection of students’ abilities. 

Foehr said the commission continues to look into the report and its research methodology. While it’s important to shed light on standardized test scores, he said, they’re just one measure of schools’ achievement.

The commission, he said, has the responsibility of holding charter schools accountable to their governing contracts and renewing these contracts every five years. But charter schools have a unique level of autonomy that allows schools and their governing boards to make decisions around curriculum and initiate academic change.     

“You never want to be ranked the bottom of anything,” Foehr said. “But at the same point, I want to assess the data that’s used and the process that’s used before I jump to any conclusions.”

Different Factors Behind Different Scores

There’s a range of reasons why charter schools may perform more poorly than traditional public schools, said James Woodworth, a research fellow at the Center for Research on Education Outcomes. For example, he said, charter schools tend to attract students who were underserved or performing poorly at their former schools. Even if students make academic gains at charter schools, they may continue to perform below grade level. 

“Typically, these are kids that are not being well served by the traditional system,” Woodworth said. 

In a study Woodworth and other researchers published earlier this year, they found that charter school students saw greater gains in reading and math than they would have otherwise made at their local traditional public school. But Hawaii wasn’t included in the study, and it’s difficult to generalize the results to other states, Woodworth said. 

Kalehua Krug, principal of Ka Waihona o ka Naʻauao in Waianae, said he’s not in competition with other schools when it comes to Strive HI results. Charter schools like his were created to address educational disparities and dissatisfaction in local communities, he said. He added that it’s important to consider how his students are performing in relation to other Waianae students – a factor that the commission will take into account when deciding whether or not to renew the school’s charter in 2026.   

At Ka Waihona o ka Naʻauao, 15% of students achieved proficiency in math and 22% in language arts, according to the 2022-23 Strive HI report. In the Nanakuli-Waianae Complex Area, 19% of students in both charter and public schools achieved proficiency in math and 30% in language arts last year. 

Keoki Fraser, principal of Kaohao School, said he focuses on his students’ year-to-year growth, rather than their proficiency scores alone. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Even at high-achieving charter schools, principals acknowledge that there’s more to student achievement than test scores. Keoki Fraser, principal of Kaohao School in Kailua, said his students from a middle-class community have typically done well on standardized tests. 

While students’ math and reading proficiency scores are well above the state average, the school is more focused on its median growth percentile, which reflects student improvement on Strive HI from year to year, Fraser said. 

“You can miss the success of a student or school if you only look at the percentage of kids that pass the test,” Fraser said. 

Ryan Mandado, chief education officer of DreamHouse Ewa Beach, echoed Fraser’s sentiments, adding that he believes his students have solid foundations in math and reading even though there’s room for improvement on their Strive HI scores. Teachers at DreamHouse follow the state standards when developing curriculum, he added, and students must create rigorous portfolios illustrating their academic and personal growth every year in order to advance to the next grade.  

At DreamHouse, 15% of students achieved proficiency in math last year and 39% in language arts. 

DreamHouse Ewa Beach High School DreamHouse Center Charter School
As a charter school, DreamHouse Ewa Beach has a mission of developing leadership skills among its students. (Megan Tagami/Civil Beat/2022)

“I think there’s a lot of magic and information that’s left unsaid here,” Mandado said. 

Alternative Accountability Measures

Every five years, schools must renew their charters with the commission in order to continue. The commission evaluates schools’ academic performances in multiple ways, Foehr said. 

In addition to considering schools’ Strive HI scores, the commission also takes into account schools’ dedication to and compliance with their respective missions, which range from immersing students in Hawaiian culture to providing a well-rounded education through project-based learning, Foehr added. 

Chelsea Keehne, senior project manager at Kamehameha Schools, said that, while standardized tests are an important measure of accountability, schools with unique missions also need different ways of evaluating student achievement. For example, she said, some Hawaiian-focused charter schools have required students to develop academic research papers and present accompanying ho’ike, or performances, before graduating. 

Board of Education Charter School Board Member Kalehua Krug
Kalehua Krug, now principal of Ka Waihona o ka Naʻauao, formerly served on the Board of Education. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018)

“All of the charter schools want students to be academically prepared for the future,” said Keehne, who works with the Hawaiian-focused charter schools that receive funding from Kamehameha Schools. “But just getting a high score on the standardized assessment is typically not the main motivation.”

But the commission has also been questioned about how it holds its schools to account. In a 2021 review, the Board of Education called on commissioners to provide more clarity about their expectations for schools’ academic performances.

Since the BOE’s evaluation, the commission has moved from focusing heavily on Strive HI results to also taking into account schools’ alignment to their respective missions, Foehr said. Commissioners have communicated these expectations to schools in regular campus visits, he said, adding that the commission has renewed the contracts of all of its schools over the past two years. 

At Ka Waihona o ka Naʻauao, the school evaluates its mission-based success through eighth graders’ capstone projects, Krug said. In addition to orally presenting what they’ve learned to a panel of staff members, students also engage in performances illustrating their understanding of Hawaiian culture, he said.

From this data, Krug said, he develops a clearer understanding of the type of education his students are receiving. 

“If you just take academic test scores, you’re basically ignoring and avoiding the conversation about mission and vision,” Krug said. 

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

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