Special-needs students in the islands, many of whom have mild learning disabilities or behavioral issues, perform abysmally on state tests overall and are well behind their peers on the mainland. Most spend much or all of their school day outside of general-education classrooms at a far higher rate than the national average.
For years, proficiency levels for special-education youth in core subjects have been substantially below state Department of Education goals and are far from the 100 percent proficiency level for special-needs students in reading and math the state has pledged to achieve by 2018.
Statewide, just 3 percent of special-education 10th-graders are proficient in math, and barely a quarter meet benchmarks for reading. Last year, Hawaii special-needs eighth-graders scored 19 points below the national average in math for students with disabilities on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. And a troubling 97 percent of Hawaii fourth-graders with special needs failed the reading portions on the NAEP, compared with 88 percent nationally.
Educators and advocates agree the implications of such a large segment of school-age youth — 19,426 children, or about 11 percent of all public school students — performing so poorly are profound: Simply, student proficiency in core areas affects not only academic achievement, but prospects after high school and long-term success in life.
"If the kids can’t read and they don’t do math, they’re in deep trouble," said Larry Gloeckler, who is a special-education consultant for several Hawaii schools and executive director of the International Center for Leadership and Education’s Special Education Institute. "I think we should be very concerned" about how special-needs youth are doing.
One potentially major contributor to low performance among students with disabilities — both advocates and state education officials say — is the small number of special-needs youth included in general-education classrooms during much of their school day. In 2008, just 15 percent of special-education youth spent 80 percent of their school day or more in regular-education classes, down from 24 percent in 2004, state figures reported to the federal government show. That is the lowest rate in the country and compares with a national average of 50 percent.
"If you are in a segregated environment, you are more likely to have a water-downed curriculum. You’re also more likely to be stigmatized," said Susan Rocco, coordinator for the Special Parent Information Network in Hawaii. "In kids with mild disabilities, missing out on the general-education curriculum and missing out on the opportunities for relationships … all have a negative impact on students. It makes it harder for them to meet graduation goals."
Poor achievement levels for special-education youth have persisted for years despite immense growth in spending — up 37 percent since 2004 alone — and big pushes to make sure Hawaii students overall are being taught to rigorous standards and setting their sights on competitive performance goals before and after graduation.
The Felix consent decree, which the state entered into in 1994 after a class-action lawsuit shed light on inadequate services for special-needs youth, led the state to spend an estimated $1 billion for special-education services and prompted the biggest reforms in education for special-needs children in Hawaii’s history.
Undoubtedly, the decree created a more robust special-education system in the islands and one, advocates say, considerably better equipped to respond to the unique behavioral and learning needs of kids. But Felix, which was lifted five years ago, did not largely translate into significant performance gains in key content learning areas. And in the half-decade since federal court oversight of special education in Hawaii ended, little progress in performance has been made.
State education officials say they are working to boost achievement among special-needs students — in part through new education reform efforts — and also acknowledge there are considerable improvements to be made.
"We know that it’s possible" to improve, said Ronn Nozoe, deputy schools superintendent. "We’ve got to expect more from kids."
Meanwhile, others are questioning whether it is fair to gauge performance among special-education students on tests designed for students without disabilities and say other measures are needed.
Norman Sakamoto, former state senator who served as chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said the bar for special-education students should be set based on the goals in their Individualized Education Program, which schools are required to provide for every special-needs student. IEPs outline the services each student gets, along with their progress and benchmarks they should meet over a school year.
"It can’t be one size fits all," said Sakamoto, who has also called the department’s push for 100 percent proficiency among special-needs students unrealistic. "It’s not about can they go to Harvard. It’s can we maximize their potential?"
For its part, the Education Department says it is moving forward on a host of plans, including those as part of the $75 million federal Race to the Top grant, aimed at pushing the state to improve the quality of the system overall and ensure all students are reaching their greatest potential.
Part of the department’s hope is that by making systemwide improvements — to teacher effectiveness, curriculum standards and student expectations — students of all abilities and across demographics will see performance gains.
But it is unclear how much the department will be able to do with little to no new resources for implementation. Though the Race to the Top grant will bring in more money, much of it is already spoken for, and most schools will not see any of the funds. At the same time, federal stimulus funding is running dry and more state cuts are likely on the way.
The news is not all bad, though. Some schools and classrooms are seeing gains in performance because of new intervention and teaching methods aimed at ensuring struggling and special-needs students are not left behind.
Pearl Ridge Elementary School adopted a full-inclusion model more than 15 years ago, and teachers said to make it work they use co-teaching, small-group learning and a lot of review and re-teaching. They have seen consistently higher than average levels of achievement among special-education youth, who number about 40, and also say that special-needs students are more accepted and embraced by students who see them as classmates.
Education officials also point to Campbell High School as a potential model for increasing student achievement. Three years ago, 99 percent of special-education 10th-graders at the Ewa Beach campus tested below proficient in math. Almost all of them were "well below." Eighty-nine percent were not proficient in reading.
In the 2008-09 year the school took drastic measures. It went to almost 100 percent inclusion, which means most special-education students — except those with the highest needs — were in general-education classrooms all day. It adopted "co-teaching," putting two teachers (a special-education teacher and a content teacher) in the same classroom. And it stressed "rapid intervention" for students grappling with material or in need of extra help.
Campbell saw small gains almost immediately.
In the 2009-10 school year, after a few more tweaks, the school saw considerable improvements. That year, more than a quarter of 10th-graders met math learning benchmarks — from just 1 percent three years earlier. The number of students proficient in reading grew to 42 percent.
School officials have also seen other gains. Alisa Bender, vice principal at Campbell High, said she has noted improvements in many of the 270 special-needs students at the school — not just 10th-graders required to take the annual Hawaii State Assessment. Their grades are improving, she said, the classes they are taking are tougher — there are now special-education students in Algebra II — and more are setting their sights on college or vocational programs.
But the school’s improvements are not being called a complete turnaround yet. Sixty-four percent of special-needs students at Campbell were "well below" proficiency in math last school year. Four percent were "well below" in reading.
"We’ve still got a long way to go," said Bender.
Still, advocates say, the sizable gains at Campbell clearly show that the gaping differences in achievement between special- and general-education students are not a given or part of the natural state of things; that many special education students in Hawaii are not meeting their learning potential — not by a long shot — and that there are models out there that can make a difference.
"If you found a way to teach them in a different manner," said Rocco, "they could be keeping up with their peers."
Poor performance among special-education students is not a new problem, and Hawaii isn’t the only state struggling with the issue. Nationally, special-needs youth are not performing to the levels many believe they could with the right interventions and learning aids. States are also increasingly watching test scores for special-education students because under the No Child Left Behind Law, even if a school’s population meets proficiency overall, it fails to meet NCLB standards — and faces sanctions — if its special-needs youth do not meet annual achievement benchmarks.
Last school year, 15 of the 141 Hawaii public schools that did not meet performance targets under NCLB failed only because their special-needs students did not achieve annual yearly progress in test scores for math, reading or both.
Concerns about the performance of youth with disabilities are also growing because even as achievement among general-education students improves year over year, test scores for special-education students have been stagnant.
Last school year, 11 percent of special-needs third- through eighth- and 10th-graders statewide tested proficient in math; 20 percent made passing scores and above in reading. The year before, 10 percent were proficient in math; 21 percent in reading.
In comparison, 68 percent of all Hawaii public school students were proficient in reading last school year — up 3 percentage points from 2008-09 — and nearly half met annual benchmarks for math, up from 45 percent a year earlier.
In performance plans filed with the federal government, as part of meeting compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the state has set ambitious goals year after year on where it wants to move proficiency levels among special-needs youth. But it has not come close on any of them. (It missed the 2009 goal — 58 percent testing on-target in reading, 46 percent proficient in math — by 38 percentage points and 34 percentage points, respectively.)
The most recent performance plan, released earlier this year, does include proposals for improving student achievement — including offering teachers more training, giving them more support and adopting successful "best practices" — but says in the past such work has been limited.
"Unfortunately, both state and regional offices have postponed most training initiatives due to severe cuts in personnel, programs and budgets," the plan said.