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Grading the Public Schools: What It Means

How good are the schools in your neighborhood? Are they getting any better? This report card tells all.


(page 1 of 5)

This is our second report card on the quality of Hawaii’s 256 government-run public schools. The results run from page 32 to page 42 of this issue. When we debuted this report last year, it was the first of its kind, combining teacher, parent and student satisfaction with student performance on math and reading tests to determine a single score for each school. Since then, the state Department of Education has released new information in all the categories we draw from, so we thought it only fair to update our report card to see if anything has changed.

What’s the bottom line? We added a column showing each school’s rank last year, for easy comparison. Some schools improved. Some got worse. Most stayed the same. Overall, the average score slipped a bit, from 49.0 to 48.8. That’s a long way from 100, the score a school could get if all of its constituents felt it worth recommending, and if all of its students at least met the state’s minimum standards for proficiency in math and reading.

Readers interested in the nuts and bolts of where we got our numbers will want to read the last section of this article, “Our Sources,” on page 124.


A Problem with Privacy

Some schools shot up on the chart from last year to this year, solely because the DOE has withheld their math and reading test scores, which in last year’s chart had shown them as performing much more poorly. For example, Liliuokalani Elementary ranked No. 193 and got a D+ in our analysis last year. This standing was largely due to test scores—only 11.1 percent of students met or exceeded proficiency in reading, 17.6 percent in math. This time, the DOE report on Liliuokalani’s test results read, “Less than 30 students tested—data left blank for confidentiality purposes.”

Perhaps we should have given Liliuokalani Elementary an “incomplete” for its concealed math and reading scores. However, to apply our method consistently, we averaged the scores that were available (teacher, parent and student satisfaction) and, as a result, Liliuokalani Elementary this year gets a B+ and stands at rank No. 42. We trust our readers to take the gaps in DOE reporting into account. Just watch for the tell-tale “NA” for “not available.”

According to Jim Dannemiller, of SMS Hawaii Market Study, 30 is a common threshold for invoking the confidentiality argument. Clients of his, ranging from HMSA to the state Department of Health, argue that below 30, one could link statistical data to specific individuals.

“Would that argument stand if you pushed it hard? Probably not,” he says. “The more valid concern is that with small samples, the mean could move very quickly. But arguments about standard deviation are complex. It’s easier for people to just say omitting small samples protects confidentiality.”

In our view, it disserves the public to withhold test results. Test scores aren’t sensitive, private information the way, say, medical conditions might be, and they do not reflect solely on the student.

Nevertheless, in its release of the 2003 Hawaii State Assessment math and reading scores, the DOE used “confidentiality” to conceal 47 sets of reading scores and 53 sets of math scores. The public is left without any meaningful measure of how well these schools are doing. And the secrecy is increasing—when it released the 2002 Hawaii State Assessment scores, the privacy cutoff was 10 or fewer students, not 30 or fewer.

The biggest anomaly on our chart is the results for Keanae Elementary, here shown getting a perfect score and an A+. But this school is very unusual. It had, as of fall 2002, the most recent figures available, exactly three students and one teacher. The DOE withheld the math and reading test results, didn’t administer the School Quality Survey to students, didn’t get the surveys back from the two parents who received them and the school’s lone teacher gave Keanae perfect marks on nearly every measure of the SQS.

But this is not typical. In most schools, the SQS is administered to dozens, if not hundreds of teachers, parents and students.


Views from the top

When we analyze this official DOE data, combining satisfaction measures with academic achievement, we find that the average public school in Hawaii earns no better than 48.8 out of a possible 100 points. What does the DOE have to say about such performance?

When we showed state schools superintendent Patricia Hamamoto our latest findings for her comment, she asked if we had heard of Mark Hunter.


“He’s a retired banker who works out of Tampa, Fla.,” explained Hamamoto. “He’s worked with some of our schools. He came up with what’s called an opportunity index. It’s an econometrics model based on eight factors beyond the control of the schools.”


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Honolulu Magazine July 2020
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