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.
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.

Waipahu High School students Andrea Jurado (far left) and Juanito Moises Jr. (far right), eat lunch with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Gov. Neil Abercrombie at the Marauder cafeteria. In March, Duncan visited Hawaii and noted remarkable progress over the past three years.

Photos: Elyse Butler Mallams

Online data tools allow principals, curriculum coordinators and teachers to look at how students are doing in their current classes, or even as far back as when they first entered the public school system. It seems like a simple concept, but despite years of collecting student data, the DOE only recently started consolidating it in a way that makes it useful for evaluating whether the new reforms being implemented are actually having the desired effect.

“It’s definitely raising the level of teaching quality, I believe, and it’s holding teachers responsible for their numbers,” Cole says.

Not everyone is seeing the same data. Teachers, for the most part, still need to be trained on the longitudinal data system, which would allow them to look at individual student data year by year—that information is so far still mostly used by administrators and data coordinators. But many classroom teachers are already using a databank of standards-based questions to create quizzes that quickly assess how their students are currently doing. Those assessments help teachers decide whether they need to reteach the whole class certain concepts or customize instruction for students who are learning at different rates.

“Every student is going to be different. Teaching is not an exact science and you have to make adjustments for each student, treating every student as an individual,” Cole says. In his social studies classes, he often puts an emphasis on the “social,” having more advanced students working with those who need help. That gives a boost to the students who can benefit from the extra assistance, but it also helps higher-achieving students master the subject well enough to teach their peers.

From the student perspective, they’re taking more tests and quizzes than ever before.

Andrea Jurado, a senior at Waipahu High School, moved to Hawaii from the Philippines four years ago, in time for freshman year. She may not have used the word reform in her description, but over the past four years, she says she’s noticed changes, including an emphasis on raising student achievement through “more homework, lots of assessments and quizzes—quizzes and exams every week.”

If you don’t pass the assessments, Jurado says, teachers just have their students go back and do them again. She adds, however, “Even if we fail, there’s going to be a lot of support.”

It could be discouraging, but the native-Tagalog speaker is thriving in her classes and maintaining a 4.15 grade-point average. She’s taking AP courses and college courses offered to about 300 Waipahu students by Leeward Community College. And she’s been accepted to highly competitive Columbia University in New York City.

Juanito Moises Jr., also a senior at Waipahu and a native-Ilocano speaker, says academic expectations have been building in recent years. “When we were young, we didn’t have that much pressure. Everything was just kind of chill at that time,” he says.

Quizzes abound—in his advanced placement physics class they’re given almost daily. “If we get most of them wrong, we spend the rest of the class learning the concepts again,” he says. But if his 3.89 grade-point average is any indication, the constant assessments and frequent review of missed skills are working. He’s already been accepted to four colleges.

The new individually tracked data is not only helping to evaluate students, it’s being used to assess schools themselves. Beyond just a simple Hawaii State Assessment score, schools are graded on other factors such as graduation and college acceptance rates, as well as attendance and drop-out statistics. (See a full chart of the Strive HI ranking system.)

Under Strive HI, schools are scored based on how well they’re preparing students for college and careers, one of the main thrusts of national education reform initiatives. The Hawaii State Assessment, which will transition to the Smarter Balanced Assessment next year, is still high-stakes, but the end-of-year assessments no longer determine whether a school passes or fails. The end-of-year assessments are still important, but schools also need to show that they’re making progress in helping all students achieve at higher levels each year—and that lower-achieving students are starting to catch up to their higher-achieving peers.

Barry McCorkell, curriculum coordinator at Ilima Intermediate (in green aloha shirt), puts together data teams of teachers so they can collaborate, share information and craft strategies together rather than struggle alone.

Photo: Elyse Butler Mallams

Of course, all the data in the world doesn’t do any good if you don’t have the time to interpret what you’ve got.

Beyond the classroom, school administrators and data coordinators are hard at work finding ways to make data effective and efficient to use for teachers, who may not have time to pore over each individual student’s data once the school year begins. The administrators and data coordinators can break down data for the teachers organized by student, by subject, by teacher, or by cohort as students move as a group year after year. This information can be streamlined for the teachers at data team meetings, freeing up more time for them to focus on how they can help their students right now.

Barry McCorkell is the curriculum coordinator at Ilima Intermediate and part of his job is putting together data teams that share information and best strategies with each other, rather than leaving teachers to figure everything out on their own. Now teachers in the same subject areas meet regularly to compare notes on how their students are doing, come up with strategies to help them improve and set goals to help them get there. One of the advantages of being able to use real-time data is that if educators see something isn’t working, they can immediately revise their lesson plans and set new goals.

“That has really helped out,” says Cole. As several educators noted, the instant feedback gained from frequent quizzing is certainly more relevant than receiving Hawaii State Assessment results over the summer when the students who took the test are no longer in class and are likely about to move on to new teachers.

One of the most significant differences from No Child Left Behind is that under the new Hawaii Growth Model, data teams aren’t just collaborating on how to help students performing just below grade-level to meet proficiency on the Hawaii State Assessment. For years, meeting proficiency benchmarks on the HSA was the measure for determining whether a school would be put under sanctions that ranged from mandatory tutoring to having someone else take over the school. With those threats hanging over them, many schools focused on under-performing students who just needed some help to catch up.

“When you’re focusing on kids really close to the cut line, there’s no credit for children’s improvement and no incentive to bringing kids to excelling,” notes assistant superintendent Stephen Schatz, who is in charge of strategic reform. “It’s not just whether you’re at a particular level or made progress over the years. The scores drove the resources.”

The perception that schools were essentially teaching to the test raised the ire of parents of students on the extreme ends of the spectrum who felt schools were pouring resources into getting middling students to meet proficiency, in some cases at the expense of gifted and special education programs.

But as Schatz explained, when developing the Strive HI performance system, the DOE worked with a community hui to come up with the factors they felt were really important for evaluating a school’s performance, including using hard data such as test scores in language arts, science and math, ACT test results, college-going rates, growth on test scores as well as behavior issues.

Under the new Hawaii Growth Model, even the highest-performing students have to show improvement and there’s no giving up on the lowest-performing students, and, in fact, there’s pressure to close the achievement gaps between all groups of students. For schools that have generally scored well on the backs of their most gifted students, the new performance system puts pressure on them to make sure all their students are showing growth. Instead of resting on their laurels, “high achieving kids still need to move,” says Tammie Picklesimer, who leads the Hawaii Educator Effectiveness System team.

However, Picklesimer believes that there’s a new wealth of data available to help raise student performance. Educators can now look beyond test scores to see if there are underlying issues, such as a history of behavioral problems or chronic absenteeism, one of the risk signs for potential dropouts. “We can go into the system right now, identify those kids and work with them and try to figure out how to help them,” she says.

For teachers, part of the incentive for putting in the extra effort for all students is that their test scores and feedback will factor into teacher evaluations, as agreed to in the last contract negotiations between the state and the Hawaii State Teachers Association.

Ilima Intermediate Principal Jon Henry Lee feels strongly that no teacher is going to give up on a student regardless of evaluations. But he recognizes that having student performance tied to teacher evaluations adds stress to teachers. There haven’t been any resignations, but teachers have come in to share their frustrations and concerns with him over all the changes.

As Cole points out, “You have to adjust to all these new things that are thrown at you. It’s definitely a work in progress. Everyone is on edge.”

Cole was initially opposed to having student data reflect on his teaching performance—not all students are going to come to school ready to learn, after all—but he’s more optimistic now. “Anything new is going to be hard,” he says. “Do I wish it wasn’t there? Of course. But since it is, you can look at the glass being half-full and I’ll be a better teacher and it’ll benefit the students.”

The real question is what will happen if a teacher ends up with a group of kids who have a hard time performing at grade level, which can feel like a dysfunctional and overwhelming situation. But Cole says teachers frustrated by the system still keep trying. “If your job is on the line, you’ll do anything to keep that job. If that means changing up all of your teaching, you’re going to do it. It’s your livelihood on the line.”

Although the changes keep teachers on their toes, Cole doesn’t necessarily view that as a bad thing. He’s pushing hard to give his students the best instruction he can, including putting in the time to review data to craft lesson plans that work. “I like to make things relevant. You have to make it fun. You have to make things up. If I have to get on my knees and bark like a dog, I’m not afraid to do that,” he says.

At first, some teachers felt overwhelmed by the emphasis on data. Many feared a lot more work piled on them and resisted the shift. But now that’s changing, Cole says. “We’ve been doing it for a couple years now and I see the good in it, especially the collaboration with the other teachers—not just to compare numbers, but to help people along.” While the system focuses first on the students, Cole sees the data also assisting the teachers who are struggling. And helping the teachers ultimately helps the students excel. 



What’s this new Strive HI Performance System?
Essentially, the Strive HI Performance System replaces Adequate Yearly Progress, the pass/fail measure under the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

As Lyndsay Pinkus, chief of staff for the Department of Education’s Deputy Superintendent, put it, AYP used test scores like a thermometer to let you know if something is wrong. Strive HI, by contrast, is a full diagnostic exam, Pinkus says.

Under NCLB, each school’s status hinged on its Adequate Yearly Progress scores, based primarily on how students scored on the Hawaii State Assessment. Under that system, even schools that showed significant improvement could be sanctioned if they missed the minimum proficiency requirements.

Strive HI still looks at test scores—this is school, after all. But schools also are rated on whether students are showing growth in learning over time, whether schools are closing the achievement gaps between different student populations and whether high school seniors are graduating ready for college and careers.

What happened to No Child Left Behind?
NCLB, a federal mandate to have all students up to grade-level in reading and math by this year, does still exist, but Hawaii has been granted a waiver that gives the state more flexibility to implement its own reform efforts. States without a waiver still have to meet one of the most controversial parts of NCLB — getting all students in the nation up to grade-level in reading and math this year.

Can parents use the Strive HI rankings to determine which schools are the best for our children?
If you’re just looking for a straight ranking you can easily see where schools fall according to the DOE, and pick a school accordingly. The DOE awards schools up to 400 points depending on how well students are performing on tests, whether students are showing growth in learning over time, whether they’re being prepared for college and careers and whether they’re closing achievement gaps.

Within those rankings, schools fall into five categories, with recognition at the top, followed by continuous improvement, focus, priority and Superintendent’s zone.

Keep in mind that schools fall into categories by percentages. Only 5 percent of schools can be recognition schools. By that same token, the lowest 5 percent of schools will always have to be placed in the priority category.

What does it mean if my school is a focus school?
Simply put, a focus school is one that falls into the bottom 5 to 15 percent of the state’s public schools, characterized by low student performance, low graduation rates and broad achievement gaps between disadvantaged and other students. Focus schools can expect the DOE to step in with more intervention and involvement, including targeted support for teachers.

What’s happening with teacher evaluations?
The new Educator Effectiveness System has replaced the old teacher evaluation system this year, but there won’t be consequences from the evaluations until it’s fully in effect, starting July 1, 2015.

Teacher evaluations were a sticking point in contentious contract negotiations between the state and the Hawaii State Teachers Association, but the 12,500-strong teachers’ union last April ultimately ratified a contract that allows for evaluations based in part on student performance.

HSTA President Wil Okabe said in a statement, “The HSTA and its members agree that student input should be one of the many sources of data that contribute to enhancing the practice of teaching. We continue to work with the DOE and our members to improve the Educator Evaluation System so that it can best accomplish its goal of providing the best learning environments for our students.”

Teachers will be evaluated as highly effective, effective, marginal or unsatisfactory. Based on those ratings, teachers could see salary increases, receive more professional development or interventions, or face termination.