Finally, Something To Cheer About for Hawaii Schools

Squeezed May 13, 2005

Hawaii is lagging behind in No Child Left Behind. Or so you’ve been led to think. It’s no secret by now that we have a lot of schools that need extra help to meet NCLB standards, and many of them are in so-called “restructuring.” Having a lot of schools in dire straits means our system is failing, right?

Not necessarily, say two Stanford University researchers. Paul E. Peterson and Frederick M. Hess contend that our situation is not necessarily a symptom of a failing system, but a result of having set high standards for our kids to meet.

The results of this study were front page, above the fold, in today’s Star-Bulletin. Its bottom line was that Hawaii just missed the top 5 (yes, the TOP 5) in rigor for its standards, when its proficiency test numbers are compared against the state’s results of the National Assessment for Educational Progress in 2003 and graded on a curve. State proficiency levels ranged from 5% above NAEP (for #1 South Carolina) to more than 36% above (the average level).

NCLB’s goal is to ensure that by 2014, every K-12 student in the U.S. will be proficient in reading and math. The key word here is “proficient,” and NCLB doesn’t touch this definition, rather leaving it to the states to decide. The individual states define proficiency for themselves and assess progress toward getting every student to meet that definition.

To draw an analogy, in some circles you’re not considered a true runner until you’ve completed a marathon. But no one says that you must make a Muslim-style pilgrimage to Boston. Each individual runner chooses for himself or herself what course to run, based on his or her experience and comfort level.

Letting states decide for themselves what proficiency is is desirable, as each state has a unique background. However, that means that there is a lack of uniformity in the “difficulty level” of those standards. One state’s standards may only require what is readily achievable with only an incremental step above current levels, while another state’s may be a leap of faith.

And as Peterson and Hess point out (emphasis mine):

Some states have risen to the challenge and set demanding proficiency levels for their students, while others have used lower standards to inflate reported performance. Not only is the disparity confusing, but, perversely enough, the states with the highest expectations often stand accused of having the most schools said to be in need of improvement—even when their students are doing relatively well.

Apparently Hawaii falls into the “leap of faith” department. For a state whose schools have been soundly criticized on all sides, we apparently have decided not to take the easy road, pressing toward a high goal. For that we should be commended, and kudos to the Star-Bulletin for doing so.

Of course, the DOE has to deal with what might become discouragement. It has been proposed that states that have higher-than-average standards having their deadlines moved back proportionately, and that seems reasonable.

But if we can press on, invest in our schools, and meet the 100% goal by 2014, we can say that we’ve made a comeback not unlike June Jones’ turnaround of the zero-to-hero UH Warriors football team in 1999.

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