HONOLULU—The value we put into our education system is a tricky thing to quantify. Over the years, we’ve struggled to apply our schooling to some sort of comparable scale, in order to measure the effectiveness of our education system—to find a way to grasp precisely how our students, and possibly our teachers, are doing in school.
Students in Hawaii’s public schools today are learning via a curriculum inspired by a 1983 report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, when President Ronald Reagan was in office. Titled “A Nation at Risk,” the report set off a chain of education reform efforts and became the driving force behind the standards movement in American education, which has become the basis of all public schooling education in the nation.
In short, education standardization sets clear standards for what we think students should know and be able to do. A standards-based system measures each student against the concrete standards, instead of how well students perform compared to their peers.
It’s a system that assumes all students learn and progress at the same level, a concept educators are taking a second look at.
Now in it’s third generation as the Hawaii Content and Performance Standards III (HCPS III), the Hawaii standardized education movement is used as the foundation of large-scale assessments, report cards, and course descriptions in schools throughout the state.
While the students’ abilities are measured by the standards, schools are then tested on their success in helping students become proficient in the standards. This Hawaii State Assessment test, inspired by George Bush’s “No Child Left Behind Act,” requires schools to give students yearly state standardized tests. The tests measure student progress to see if schools met their Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) goals. These goals were intended to increase accountability and are measured by achieving certain learning benchmarks, a specific statement of what a student should know or be able to do at a specific grade level or in a course, to measure their progress.
Those in opposition to standards-based education say that it’s not realistic to expect every student to perform at the same level as the best students, and that it’s not fair to punish those that do not perform as well as the best.
Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL) lab, one of 10 regional educational laboratories that make up the Regional Educational Laboratory System, worked with U.S. Department of Education (DOE) curriculum specialists to consider how much learning was possible in a school day for a given grade level. McREL compared the time available in the school day with the focus of the grade level cluster—and the time allowed within required courses at the secondary levels— when developing standards and, particularly, grade level benchmarks.
However, some teachers feel that they aren’t given ample time to help children become proficient in the standards.
“They give us way more to meet than is possible for one teacher to do in a year, given the amount of classes we’re given along with the length of classes,” says a high school English teacher from an East Hawaii Island public school that is currently in restructuring from years of not meeting their AYP goals.
She added: “The DOE has these set standards that are simply just not feasible for every single student to be able to become proficient in. They have different backgrounds, upbringing, learning styles, and socioeconomic statuses. Within one state, children from the most poverty-stricken areas have to meet the same exact standards as wealthy children with private tutors.”
Yet, according to the DOE, these standards serve three general purposes: to clarify expectation for students, to raise those expectations, and to provide common targets that help assure equitable educational expectations, opportunities, and experience for all students. Hawaii’s DOE states that these three purposes form the “foundation of Hawaii’s educational standards and standard-based education.”
However, it’s a learning process that isn’t entirely cut and dry. While all teachers and students are required to meet the same benchmarks, they are able to use different methods of getting there. Two teachers may use Romeo and Juliet for their 9th grade English classes, but in the larger picture might take different routes with other books and book report methods, for example.
The key factor is just that they reach a given benchmark.
According to the DOE, meeting a benchmark translates as being proficient in that area. Once a students meets a benchmark, they are considered proficient and move on to the next. A benchmark is a specific statement of what a student should know or be able to do at a specific grade level or in a course.
Students need to demonstrate proficiency at four levels: knowledge retrieval, comprehension, analysis, and knowledge utilization. Benchmarks are intended to provide consistency. In Hawaii’s standards-based system, all tools to support the HCPS III are built around benchmarks.
On the DOE’s HawaiiDOEreform.org website, which lays out plans to succeed in the national Race to the Top program for federal funds, the department points to stricter standards. The website describes a “transition to a more rigorous set of academic standards and materials and assessment to match.”
And to ensure the state standards are in line with national and international benchmarks, Hawaii joined 48 other states in the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI).
The CCSSI mission statement is as follows: “Provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.”
The idea is to have all participating 48 states to be on the same “playing field.”
The HCPS III lists educational “targets” in nine content areas from kindergarten through fifth grade. From sixth through twelfth grade the standards are set in different content areas including the four core content areas of language arts, math, science, and social studies. Within these, the standards describe expectations for all students, since all students are expected to take certain required courses in these areas. Extended core classes (as electives) include health, physical education, fine arts, world languages, and career and technical education. All courses in Hawaii’s schools, both required or elective, are standards-based and are part of the Hawaii Standards System.
In an effort to measure how well Hawaii’s schools do at meeting the HCPS III standards, third, fourth, fifth, six, seventh, eighth, and tenth grade students take the Hawaii State Assessment (HSA) exams three times during a school year.
Children’s abilities are gauged by the assessment as exceeding, meeting, approaching, or well below the standards in language arts and math. The HSA shows if a school is meeting their AYP goals. Currently the HSA isn’t used to retain a student in their current grade, or to promote them up a grade, but children who don’t meet proficiency on the HSA for reading and math are required to take an added class and workshop the following school year. The added workshop results in canceling out an elective for the students, whether it be a computer science class, art class, or otherwise. Schools that do not meet their AYP goals for several years in a row could be restructured, replaced, or shut down.
Former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch was once an avid advocate of No Child Left Behind. In 2005, she said: “We should thank President George W. Bush and Congress for passing the No Child Left Behind Act. ... All this attention and focus is paying off for younger students, who are reading and solving mathematics problems better than their parents’ generation.”
Just four years later she had changed her mind.
In an interview with NPR in April, Ravitch said: “I came to the conclusion ... that No Child Left Behind has turned into a timetable for the destruction of American public education. I had never imagined that the test would someday be turned into a blunt instrument to close schools—or to say whether teachers are good teachers or not—because I always knew children’s test scores are far more complicated than the way they’re being received today.”
A teacher from Hawaii Island’s Keaau High School, who asked to remain anonymous, agreed that too much emphasis is placed on standardized tests. “If the school falls below, they put it in restructuring,” she said. “If it gets really bad, they can close the school. So teachers are getting punished because the kids aren’t learning what we’re teaching them. The standards require so many benchmarks to be met in a year, way more than is possible for one teacher to meet in a year. And there’s a lot more going on than a teacher’s talent that effects how and what students learn.”
Yet in HSA results published by the DOE, the percentage of students testing proficient in reading rose from 41 percent (2003) and 60 percent (2007) to 66 percent in 2011, down one percent from last year. In math, it rose dramatically from 20 percent (2003) and 39 percent (2007) to an impressive 54 percent in 2011.
The numbers, however, don’t reflect the effect of standardized testing on students with special needs, the Keaau High School teacher said.
Ravitch also pointed out: “Most of the schools that will be closed [due to low test scores] are in poor or minority communities where large numbers of children are very poor and large numbers of children don’t speak English. They have high needs. They come from all kinds of difficult circumstances and they need help. They don’t need their school closed.”
As of today, 140 of Hawaii’s public schools (or 49 percent) have the NCLB status of “good standing” as a result of their HSA scores. Thirty-four schools (12 percent) are under school improvement, while 12 (four percent) are under corrective action. Thirteen of Hawaii’s public schools (five percent) are planning for restructuring. Eighty-seven schools (30 percent) are in restructuring.
Despite the circumstances, the reality is that students will continue to learn via standardized education, and take the HSA test, unless they attend independent schools.