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Drop in Student Test Scores in Hawaii Stirs Concern

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A dramatic, highly publicized drop in the standardized-test scores of Hawaii students has shaken the education community in the state and generated an outpouring of concern from school administrators, teachers, and parents.

The outcry began when the state education department released data this month showing that 42 percent of 10th graders and 37 percent of 3rd graders scored below average in reading on a new edition of the Stanford Achievement Test administered in the spring. On the version of the test given last year, 24 percent of both 10th and 3rd graders had scored below average in reading.

The decline in scores, headlined in local newspapers and on television broadcasts, drew a barrage of letters and calls from parents and prompted a directive from State Superintendent of Education Charles T. Toguchi calling for "immediate action to improve student achievement'' on several fronts.

The Hawaii State Teachers Association also entered the fray by charging that the drop in scores reflects a 25-year decline in the proportion of state and local revenues devoted to public education. The union called on the legislature to place a higher priority on education funding.

Analyzing the Causes

Although the test is given to students in grades 3, 6, 8, and 10, the reading scores for 3rd and 10th graders showed the most deterioration between 1991 and 1992.

The percentages of students scoring below average in mathematics rose slightly, from 18 percent to 23 percent for 3rd graders and from 21 percent to 23 percent for 10th graders. But those figures were still "well within reason compared to national norms,'' said Selvin Chin-Chance, the administrator of the test-development section of the state education department.

Officials said Hawaii students typically have lower verbal than math scores because of the high percentage of immigrant families in which English is the second language.

Mr. Chin-Chance also noted that the "most significant changes'' in the new test were in the reading portion, which included longer passages and more emphasis on differentiating fact from opinion.

Education officials are trying to determine more precisely what contributed to the drop, he noted, by analyzing the content of the new test and the impact of such factors as demographics and student mobility.

Joanne M. Lenke, the executive vice president of the Psychological Corporation, the San Antonio-based publisher of the test, said in an interview that Hawaii's experience falls "within the realm of expectation'' when a revised test is first used.

The dip in scores may have been more striking in Hawaii than elsewhere, Ms. Lenke noted, because the state not only introduced the new version of the test, but also began using a newer set of norms to score it this year. Most school systems switching to the new edition had already been using the newer norms, which were introduced in 1986, she said.

Ms. Lenke added that Hawaii's method of reporting results "can look like a bigger difference than reporting a percentile rank'' of a typical student, as most states do.

An Unbaked Cake

But such technical considerations and caveats may not be very reassuring to people in Hawaii. Mr. Chin-Chance acknowledged that the test scores have raised questions among some critics about the effectiveness of a major school-reform effort launched three years ago to decentralize some state functions and phase in school- and community-based management.

Many of those efforts are only now getting under way, however. Linking the reforms to lower test scores would be like "taking a cake out of the oven in the middle of the baking process and then saying obviously the new recipe doesn't work,'' Mr. Chin-Chance argued.

The department launched an "action plan'' to address declining student achievement in 1991. But in his Oct. 1 directive, Mr. Toguchi called on teachers to more systematically identify steps they can take to meet the needs of their students and to set targets for boosting results over the next four years.

The directive also encourages "test-wiseness instruction'' to hone students' test-taking skills, and highlights state efforts to offer schools guidance on what students should know at various ages and to train teachers in "how test scores can be used to adjust instruction.''

But Sharon Mahoe, the president of the state teachers' union, argued that "the potential for real change'' cannot be fulfilled until school funding improves.

The H.S.T.A. has argued that a steady decline in the share of state spending devoted to education has lowered per-pupil spending, raised pupil-teacher ratios in most grades, and led to overcrowded classes and schools in "shameful disrepair.''

"It is neither a secret, nor a coincidence, that the scores of our students and the amount of money devoted to public education in Hawaii are plunging downward together,'' said Ms. Mahoe.

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