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TerraNova mandate dispensable

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The state Department of Education, like every other office in state government, is seeking ways to put its limited funding where it is needed most. Cuts may be painful, but one that’s been proposed to state lawmakers should be tolerable: ending the mandate for TerraNova, the standardized test that compares Hawaii scores with national norms.

Eliminating TerraNova, in use since 2007, will save the DOE $500,000 every year. It’s an example of what’s called a “norm referenced” exam, which enables Hawaii student scores to be compared with national norms. If the Legislature passes Senate Bill 1282, administering such a test will be an option, not a requirement, for individual schools that want to pay for it.

The shelf life on this exam is almost up, anyway. An initiative led by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers has produced a set of common-core state standards in English language arts and math. Hawaii adopted them last June and, as part of a consortium of 31 states, is working to develop a new test based on those shared standards.

That’s where there’s a problem. The consortium received a grant from the Race to the Top federal program that will keep the test-making on track, but it’s not due to be distributed to classrooms until the

2014-2015 school year.

Ideally, the DOE wouldn’t be cancelling a national test until the new one is in place. But these are not ideal times.

On Monday, Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi told the state Board of Education in stark terms what a proposed $110 million cut to the department’s biennial budget will mean. Achieving that reduction will mean painful sacrifices, such as ending school bus service, slashing per-student funding allotments and eliminating $11 million in special programs, including after-school tutoring and help for at-risk students.

SB 1282 is moving ahead with little public testimony, although school advocate Melanie Bailey said there are many parents, including those moving here on military assignment, who appreciate the chance to compare Hawaii and mainland schools. There still will be institutional comparisons being made: A random sampling of students nationwide are tapped to take the National Assessment of Educational Progress. But results of this test are only used to guide educators; they are not shared among parents.

Parents may see the gap in national testing as a loss, and it is, temporarily. But they still will be able to see how individual schools fare, relative to each other, on the No Child Left Behind testing. And considering the brutal cuts being contemplated in other educational programs, it’s pointless to try to rescue this half-million-dollar budget item if it means defunding something else.

School officials also say the TerraNova is already treated as a secondary concern on school campuses, where teachers are more worried about how students fare on the No Child exams, in which nonachievement actually can penalize a school. It would be far better for schools to take that allotment, small as it is, and apply it to activities in which learning takes place. National-norm testing is important in the long run, but it ranks below other programs needed now to shore up an embattled educational system.

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