HONOLULU - U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan praised Hawaii's results on a national math and reading report card for 4th- and 8th-graders, vindication for a state that was criticized for its progress on reforms that won Hawaii a $75-million Race to the Top grant.
"They've done some very, very difficult and courageous work and lots of folks sort of scoffed when we invested in Hawaii through Race to the Top, people thought that was a loser, that Hawaii could never do anything," he said. "Well, I think Hawaii to their tremendous credit has proved a lot of skeptics wrong."
In December 2011, the federal Education Department admonished Hawaii for unsatisfactory performance in delivering promised reforms. Then, about a week before the start of this school year, Hawaii was cleared from its "high-risk" status.
In National Assessment of Educational Progress results released Thursday, Hawaii is highlighted as one of four jurisdictions to see a higher average score this year than in 2011 in math for both 4th and 8th grades. Hawaii is one of nine states with an increased 8th-grade reading average score.
"From 2003 to 2013, Hawaii leads the nation in statistically significant gains, making improvements in 13 assessments out of a possible 20, tying with the District of Columbia, and five ahead of the nearest other states," said a news release from the state Department of Education.
On a 500-point scale, Hawaii scored an average of 243 for 4th-grade math this year, up from 239 in 2011. Eighth-grade math was 281, up from 278. Eighth-grade reading was 260, up from 257. There was no statistical change for the 4th-grade reading score of 215.
"Hawaii is a good example for the country" in setting high standards, said Chris Minnich, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Council of Chief State School Officers.
Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of education policy think-tank Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, D.C., said it's too early to credit or blame Race to the Top for Hawaii's results. But he noted, "The same leadership that helped Hawaii win Race to the Top is the same leadership that is helping Hawaii move the needle on achievement."
Hawaii's gains occurred during a time when the percentage of English-language learners has doubled from 5 percent in 2003 to 10 percent in 2013 for 8th grade and risen from 5 percent to more than 7 percent for 4th grade, Hawaii NAEP State Coordinator Robert Hillier said in a statement. The percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-priced lunch has climbed to more than 50 percent for both grades, he said.
However, Hawaii, like many other states, has more to accomplish. The percentage of Hawaii students performing at or above the proficient level in mathematics was higher than the nation only for 4th grade.
The percentage of Hawaii students proficient or above in reading was lower than the nation on average in both grades.
In a press call Thursday with Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie and Hawaii schools Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi, Duncan noted how Hawaii has not always been seen as a leader in education and suggested that's changing.
Abercrombie touted Hawaii's singular, statewide district, funded through general revenues, for the ability to affect change in classrooms.
"We had the opportunity to be able to show you and those who have faith in us that we could succeed," he said.
Matayoshi said it's been a "struggle" and "very, very hard work," but that it's not over.
She noted that increasing early education opportunities for low-income areas is something that needs to continue.