As Hawaii's largest employers, we care deeply about the abilities of Hawaii's public school students. So what are we to make of recent news that slightly less than one out of two public school students met the standard in 2015? After all, didn't nearly three out of four students just meet the standard the year prior? Have our schools and students really regressed that much?
In fact, just the opposite is true. Trying to gauge the performance of Hawaii public schools can admittedly be confusing. So here is the bottom line — public school students in Hawaii did better than experts expected on a test that measures far more complex knowledge than the old test did.
First, some background context. Less than two weeks ago, for the first time, the Hawaii Department of Education released Smarter Balanced
test results for students in grades 3-8 and 11. Prior tests largely gauged whether students could recall information. Responding in part to private-sector calls that the world of work now requires a far different set of skills, the state Board of Education opted for an assessment that goes beyond multiple-choice questions to also measure critical thinking and how well students solve real-world problems.
Smarter Balanced is a far harder test based entirely on a new set of learning expectations. In 2011, Hawaii joined other states in implementing the Common Core standards in reading, writing and mathematics.
Common Core was developed with the ends in mind — college professors joined employers and school teachers in helping define the skills that high school graduates need for success in the 21st century. Skilled educators then made hard choices in what content to teach when.
"Our teachers are to be congratulated for making this
instructional shift. If we continue on this path, Hawaii's graduates
will get better jobs with better pay despite the far more
competitive nature of the workplace these days."
The resulting "fewer, clearer and higher" standards offer teachers the space to deeply explore critical thinking, reasoning and communication skills with students. Notably, this was only the second year for Common Core to be taught in all our DOE classrooms. Our teachers are to be congratulated for making this instructional shift. If we continue on this path, Hawaii's graduates will get better jobs with better pay despite the far more competitive nature of the workplace these days.
We can now compare the performance of students in Hawaii to those in other states — reflecting how labor flows in a flatter world. So while the test sets a new baseline and we cannot look at prior years, we do know this: Hawaii students outperformed states like Connecticut and Vermont in fourth-grade mathematics and bested California and Idaho in English Language Arts.
Finally, the exams truly matter to students for perhaps the first time. Eleventh-graders who score a 3 or 4 automatically place into a college-level credit-bearing course in
200 universities, including the University of Hawaii. For more than 5,000 students meeting this level of performance, this benefit matters a lot.
To recap, leadership of the state Board of Education and Department of Education are to be commended for electing to set a much higher bar for our students. Public education in Hawaii has come a long way in the past decade and has further yet to go. Roughly half our seniors are not yet fully ready for college or the workplace. But as any parent knows, when we expect more of our children, we get more in return.
We urge Hawaii's education board and department to stay the course while bringing the other half of our students up to speed.
Terrence R. George is president and CEO of the Harold K.L. Castle Foundation. Harry Saunders is president of Castle & Cooke Hawaii. They co-chair the Hawaii Business Roundtable Education Task Force.