When State Budgets are Not Aligned to Data

A version of this entry was written and published in Civil Beat on May 27, 2015. 


At a Board of Education meeting on May 19, 2015, the Hawaii Department of Education presented the Legislature’s final adjusted biennial budget for DOE school years 2015-2016 and 2016-2017, as detailed in HB500 CD1.

Included in the over $115 million shortfall the legislature decided not to fund, was more than $107 million that would have had a direct and specific benefit to school level programs. 

One such program that was cut from the DOE’s budget request was Achieve3000, an online, differentiated-learning literacy program with a remarkable history of gains for Hawaii’s students. 

Achieve3000 costs $1.92 million a year for 255 DOE schools, which comes out to an average of just $7,530 per school, or $11 per student, per year. DOE used its purchasing power to negotiate a 25% discount for a statewide contract. Achieve 3000 benefits by not having to manage 255 separate accounts and collect payment from each schools’ weighted student formula allotments.  

In 2009, the DOE signed a 5-year contract with Achieve3000, making the program available to students across the state. Daniel Hamada was the DOE Assistant Superintendent Office of Curriculum, Instruction and Student Support at that time. Hamada has since returned to the school level, serving as Principal at Kapaa High School. He has had both a bird’s-eye overview of how impactful Achieve3000 has been for student literacy across the state, and now he observes it working every day, on the ground.

Achieve3000 begins with a reading assessment for each student, delivers reading material precisely matched to each individual’s reading level, offers multiple choice reading activities to assess comprehension, and continues to elevate the reading level of the student as the student progresses. The more frequently a student uses the program, the greater their literacy gains.

Although Achieve3000 was available to all schools since 2009, only 216 schools were actively using it in the beginning. Schools that were not using the program created a baseline which allowed the DOE to contrast performance on the Hawaii State Assessment.  

According to an August 2010 powerpoint presentation, “99% of Hawaii Department of Education schools that used Achieve3000 solutions and completed 40 or more multiple choice reading activities on average per user met the proficiency requirement for their overall HSA reading scores, outperforming the schools that did not use Achieve3000 Solutions by 15 percentage points.” 40 reading activities come out to an average of just one activity a week.

A scientific tool for measuring reading level and growth has been developed and trademarked as “Lexile.” A student’s Lexile score creates a quantifiable way to identify and compare where they are at a given point to how much they have improved after a particular intervention. 

If you look at a range of Lexile scores for grades 1-12 you will notice that there is a 200-point jump from grade 1 to grade 2, and from grade 2 to grade 3; but then it begins to narrow to a 100-point jump between grade 4 to grade 5; and continues to narrow down to a 30-point jump between grade 9 and grade 10.  

This is important to keep in perspective because according to the DOE’s presentation on Achieve3000, students who were doing 80 or more reading activities a year, or two activities a week, had an average Lexile gain of 181 points. Students who used the program 40-79 times a year had an average Lexile gain of 140 points. Whereas, expected growth for students who did not use Achieve3000 was only an average Lexile gain of 86 points. This means that, depending on their grade, students could have jumped two reading grade levels in one year.

According to two recent analyses of Hawaii’s use Achieve3000, prepared in July 2014 and February 2015, there are approximately 120,000 student users, and 6,000 teachers and 6,000 parents/guardians using the program to track learning and support students. Up to 68% of users were logging into the program after school hours. 

Despite this increasing popularity and the continued measurable gains for Hawaii’s students, the legislature would not fund the $1.92 million to renew the statewide contract with Achieve3000. Instead the legislature earmarked $1.2 million for a bunch or “grant-in-aid” add-ons, like a “Leilehua Alumni Association”, that the DOE never requested.  

At a BOE meeting last month, Member Amy Asselbaye sought confirmation from the DOE that  schools would have to pay for the Achieve3000 program from each of their own weighted student formula allotments. (The Legislature did provide the DOE with the $2.4 million increase to the weighted student formula fund to address the projected increase to enrollment for school-year 2015-2016.) The DOE responded that given this new funding challenge, only 50 of the 255 schools were interested in continuing this program. 

It is unclear what would happen to all of those student accounts if the other 205 schools dropped Achieve3000. This could turn out to be the lowest point of the school/principal empowerment movement. What other learning intervention has had such measurable successes when it comes to improving literacy? When principals and School Community Councils prioritize their spending, what is more foundational to their mission than reading?

Looking back at his time as Assistant Superintendent, Daniel Hamada said that initiating the partnership with Achieve3000 has proven to be one of his proudest accomplishments when it comes to supporting student learning. The program’s measurable positive impact on literacy gains for DOE students should give Principal Hamada’ great pride; it should also give those principals who are considering abandoning this program great pause.

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