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New Online Data Tools Changing the Way Hawaii’s Public School Students Learn

New tech tools are allowing teachers to tailor their lesson plans to individual students more than ever.


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At Ilima Intermediate School in Ewa Beach, social studies teacher Brian Cole takes a break from classroom studies with his students. While digging into data daily has been an adjustment, Cole recognizes the payoff for himself and other teachers and for students who benefit from faster feedback. Below, other scenes from Ilima, including a peek at the data itself.

Photos: Elyse Butler Mallams

At an Ilima Intermediate School open house, a mother looked at the expectations for her son’s seventh-grade social studies class and warned his teacher that there was no way her son could do the work. In her mind, it was just too hard, especially the writing. That social studies teacher, Brian Cole, wasn’t ready to accept the mother’s assessment. He wanted to reach his own conclusion by analyzing hard data rather than relying on the parent’s anecdotal evidence.

It may seem like common sense, but systemic analysis of data is a relatively new trend in Hawaii’s schools, and one that appears to be producing results from Ewa Beach to Hawaii Island. As the only statewide public school system in the nation, the Hawaii Department of Education (DOE) has been collecting student data for decades. However, it’s only within the past few years that the public schools have made a concerted effort to use the data to help students achieve more. Now schools have access to students’ academic information from when they enter the school system. Teachers and administrators can access individual students’ report cards and test scores as far back as kindergarten, along with attendance records and disciplinary notes that might give context to current academic issues.

But it’s not enough to just have years of student records stored on a hard drive. If a student is having trouble in math, educators can now look over years of records to see if it’s a new problem, or if struggles in math turned up in the past. The data might even point to other reasons the student is falling behind, such as a rash of absences or problems outside of school that get in the way of academics. The key to success might be in a student’s data, but, “if you don’t analyze it, you’re not going to get anywhere,” Cole says.

Teachers have new tools at their disposal that help them identify which students are currently struggling with specific concepts and also offer teaching tips to help bring those students up to speed. The formative assessments—­­­“quizzes” in kid-lingo — allow teachers to customize a learning plan according to a child’s ability. With the student whose mom thought he couldn’t write, Cole first focused on writing in paragraphs, then used assessments to decide when the student was able to move on to higher-level tasks.

Cole says it worked because he was able to use real-time data as the student was learning. After a section on writing with structure, Cole could immediately give an assessment to make sure the student was keeping up with grade-level writing standards. He did the same thing for arguments, then for backing up those arguments with hard evidence.

“It’s really awesome the way you can use the data. If you do it right, you can see those success stories,” Cole notes with pride.

Data systems are just one piece of the puzzle in the Hawaii Department of Education’s newest reform effort, which builds on prior initiatives and mandates such as the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which became No Child Left Behind in 2002. The state’s current reform effort is aligned with President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top (RTTT) program, which awarded the Hawaii public school system $75 million to make significant improvements to its schools. And the school system has the data to demonstrate that the reforms are producing results. The state’s progress under Race to the Top has earned it an exemption from No Child Left Behind, which primarily looked at Hawaii State Assessment scores and failed to consider other signs of student achievement.

And that has paid off. In March, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan singled out Hawaii for significant progress. “When we originally gave (Hawaii) the RTTT grant, lots of folks doubted our judgment there and said there was no way they could be successful. ... They’ve shown amazing leadership in a relatively short amount of time,” he said. He met with students at Waipahu High School, marking the first Hawaii visit by an education secretary in nearly 20 years.

In prior reform efforts, the Department invested in the hottest new curricula, hired education service providers to restructure struggling schools, remodeled its high-stakes assessments and found new uses of technology to try to reach more students. But aside from once-a-year scores on the Hawaii State Assessment, there wasn’t much to determine which, if any, of the new strategies were truly working. Now, under a new Strive HI performance system, data is changing the way Hawaii teaches its students.

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Honolulu Magazine May 2020
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