When some 93,000 public school students start taking high-stakes state tests next week, they will have to score higher than last year to be considered proficient in math and reading.
An online Hawaii State Assessment training test is available at www.alohahsa.org. Click on "Students and Families" for a sample test, tutorial and other materials.
The new standards reflect initiatives to increase classroom rigor and achievement, and come as Hawaii public schools plan to start teaching to national curriculum standards for core subjects next school year in hopes of better preparing students for college and competitive careers.
"We may be criticized for making (testing proficient) harder when a lot of kids are still not proficient," said Garrett Toguchi, chairman of the Board of Education, which approved new "cut" scores for the Hawaii State Assessment last week.
"But we’re not going to play the game of keeping standards low and having kids falsely become proficient."
The tougher cut scores are in part designed to balance out the improvements students are expected to make by being able to take the state assessment – moving online for the first time this year – up to three times, with the highest score used.
But education officials also say that even with three chances, more students will probably fall under the higher testing bar.
That could mean more schools failing to meet adequate yearly progress goals this school year – and facing sanctions under the No Child Left Behind law.
At Holomua Elementary School in Ewa Beach last week, students took five-question practice tests to get a hang of the new online assessment format.
Holomua Principal Gary Yasui said he is not dwelling too much on the consequences of meeting or missing the higher benchmarks. The school met NCLB goals last school year.
"What we’re trying to do is prepare the students as best as possible," Yasui said. "We have to work toward trying to attain" the goals.
He added that all students at Holomua will take the state test at least twice. Those who have not hit proficiency after two tests will get a third crack at it.
Officials are hoping the move to an online assessment, which will provide instant results, will help teachers better gear their instruction to student strengths and weaknesses.
"It’s not teaching to the test," said Lorelei Karasaki, principal of Puuhale Elementary in Kalihi.
Instead, Karasaki said, it will mean teachers understanding quickly whether their lessons are effective and who needs extra help.
Students in grades 3 through 8 and grade 10 will be able to take the online Hawaii State Assessment during testing times over an eight-month period, from October to May.
In previous years, schools administered a paper test over three weeks in April, and results did not come out until July.
On top of tougher cut scores, schools are contending with increased NCLB annual progress goals, which rise this year after remaining the same for three years.
Under the new benchmarks, at least 72 percent of students will have to be proficient in reading (up from 58 percent), and 64 percent of students must be proficient in math (up from 46 percent).
By 2014, 100 percent of students will be expected to demonstrate a high level of skill in core subjects.
Schools have their work cut out for them to reach those goals: Last school year, 67 percent of public school students tested proficient in reading, and 49 percent tested proficient in math.
Meanwhile, on practice assessments administered earlier this year, about 50 percent of students tested proficient under the new cut scores.
About 44 percent of students tested proficient in math.
Officials noted that students were allowed to take the practice tests only once, and cautioned against drawing conclusions based on the results.
Cut scores represent the lowest point total a student can get and still be considered proficient in a subject. Students below the cutoff are put in two categories: "approaching" proficiency or "well below" proficiency.
Cara Tanimura, director of the department’s systems accountability office, said the board’s approval of tougher cut scores was a "really brave step."
"We need to keep those standards high," she said. "As we go towards common core and international benchmarking, you can imagine it’s going to get more challenging."
The new cut scores were set by a committee of 129 teachers, parents and community members, who got training on standards setting by the department’s test contractor, the American Institutes for Research.
The DOE declined to release the new cut scores themselves, compared with the old ones, saying they could be used to manipulate testing. But Tanimura said the new cut scores represent a noticeable – but not overly sizable – jump.
Compared with other states, Hawaii already has a tougher test.
Tests – and cut scores – vary widely from state to state, but there are moves under way to change that.
The common core curriculum standards, adopted by Hawaii and 37 other states, will produce common tests for groups of states so they can better compare their progress.
Hawaii plans to test to common core standards starting in the 2014-15 school year.