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Hawaii Public School Students Saw More Learning Loss During the Pandemic Compared to Other Years

Cory Lum
Civil Beat

The number of middle and elementary school students who are more than two grade levels behind in math and reading is higher now compared to previous years, according to the State Department of Education. This comes after Hawaii public school students have been largely distance learning due to COVID-19.

  23% of elementary school students are two or more grade levels behind in math and english language arts.

Middle schoolers were hit even harder. 40% of middle school students were two or more grade levels behind in english and language arts and 35% were behind in math.

However, Hawaii’s students made less learning gains in math in the 2019-2020 school year.

That follows the national trend observed by the Northwest Evaluation Association.

“Gains in math were lower, on average this fall than in prior years. And so more kids as a result of that are falling behind to their relative to their prior standing,” said NWEA researcher Beth Tarasawa.

“Just give you an estimate, on average math scores were between five and 10 percentile points lower for this group of kids compared to the same grade kids in 2019.”

Hawaii Deputy School Superintendent Phyllis Unebasami has plans to curb learning loss.

“One to One tutoring, when structured carefully is one of the most effective strategies to increase student learning and mitigate learning loss,” Unebasami said.

“The department is investigating an intensive tutoring program for students in grades five through eight, who are two or more years behind in ELA and math. And we are estimating approximately 25,000 students.”

However House Education Committee Chair Rep. Justin Woodson wanted more information about underrepresented students.

“I still have questions about some of the specifications as to how learning loss is happening. I would like to know some of the population groups in which it's happening if in fact, there's a variance,” he said. “What is the breakdown per Island more specifically?

Tarasawa explained the NWEA study on learning loss saw a higher percentage of students not represented in this year’s study-- and these students are more likely to be from historically marginalized communities. 

“This begs the questions, not just are those kids missing from our data, but are they missing from school more broadly?” she asked.

“Does this mean they're not able to connect? Do they not have devices? Are they not enrolled altogether? And so there's kind of this bigger call to action.”

School Superintendent Christina Kishimoto thought the main issue to correcting learning loss in Hawaii will be funds. She pointed to Tennessee, which announced plans for one-to-one tutoring-- with increased pay for teachers.

“They're saying, yes, they have a budget crisis. But if they don't infuse money into the school system and create stability and longevity in terms of the ability for longer term planning that they might lose momentum on the kind of things that we would like to do to really have this change, be long term and be permanent and not an interim step,” Kishimoto said.

The proposed budget cuts to DOE are just over $100 million and would include cutting about 800 teacher positions.

The state board of education will meet on Thursday to discuss the proposed cuts and how to spend $183 million dollars in new federal funding to address COVID-19 and learning losses.

Ashley Mizuo
Born and raised on O’ahu, she’s a graduate of ‘Iolani School and has a BA in Journalism and Political Science from Loyola University Chicago and an MA in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois-Springfield.
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