Fewer than half of Hawaii’s keiki proficient in reading and math

A new study reports that fewer than half of Hawaii’s students are proficient in reading and math and that Hawaii is ranked among the bottom third of states nationally for economic well-being, indicating a need for more state action supporting keiki and families.

The Kids Count Data Book, a report developed by the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation, has shed light on children’s well-being across the nation since it was first published in 1990. While students’ lack of basic reading and math skills has been an ongoing problem for decades, the study read, the focus on learning loss due to the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted attention back to the issue, especially as chronic absence grew and economic instability rose.

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“This year’s data suggests a concerning trend for Hawaii’s youth and that is they will continue to be the population who suffers when our state’s policies do not support the economic well-­being of working families,” Hawaii Children’s Action Network Executive Director Deborah Zysman said in a news release.

According to the report, 35% of Hawaii fourth graders were at or above reading proficiency in 2022, a small change from 34% in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, 22% of eighth graders were at or above proficient in math, a significant drop from 28% in 2019.

Nationally, Hawaii ranked eighth in reading proficiency, compared with 28th in 2019, and 38th in math proficiency, compared with 42nd in 2019 — both improvements in ranking due to average proficiency rankings worsening nationally.

The link between student readiness and lifetime economic stability is also apparent, with many of the fastest-growing occupations requiring high-level reading and math skills “that we are not ensuring our children possess,” the study read.

“Just as underprepared workers are less competitive within our economy, an underprepared workforce makes America less competitive in the global economy,” the study read. “Persistent disparities further damage both individual prospects and the economy as a whole — at an enormous scale.”

The report also found that 39% of Hawaii’s students were “chronically absent” — meaning they missed 10% or more days of school in the academic year — in 2022, a jump from 18.5% in 2019. This statistic ranks Hawaii among the worst 10 states in the country for rates of chronically absent students. Additionally, 59% of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students were reported to be chronically absent in 2022, aligning with data indicating students of color experienced higher rates of chronic absence.

While chronic absence has roots that have existed before the pandemic, such as housing insecurity, poverty and student disengagement, the study cites early research indicating that the pandemic “both exacerbated existing attendance challenges and introduced new ones,” like rising anxiety and mental health issues.

The Kids Count Data Book study has traditionally presented data across 16 indicators over four “domains” — economic well-being, education, health, and family and community factors — and ranks states accordingly, reflecting the interconnectedness between student performance and external conditions.

“When kids grow up in harsh economic conditions, education is really supposed to be the great equalizer to get them out of that when they’re adults,” Ivette Rodriguez Stern, junior specialist at the UH Center on the Family, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “When you look at our proficiency rates and the new data offered on chronic absenteeism, and then you look at the disproportionality with some groups, that’s a great concern, because if you’re growing up in those economic conditions and you’re not getting the educational opportunities to lift you out of that, then what does our future look like?”

Overall, Hawaii ranked 25th in the nation for overall child well-being — maintaining its rank from 2023 — and placed 20th in education, 15th in health and 18th in family and community factors. Each of these rankings fell as compared with 2023, from 19th in education, 13th in health and eighth in family and community factors.

However, the state improved its economic well-being ranking, going from 44th place in 2023 to 38th this year, although the ranking still categorized Hawaii among the “worse” category of states.

The ranking in the bottom third of states in this domain was heavily affected by Hawaii’s ranking of 47th in the housing cost burden indicator. According to the report, in 2022 almost 38% of Hawaii’s keiki lived in households that spent over 30% of their income on housing. In that same time, 28% of children in the state lived in families where no parent had full-time, year-round employment.

“It is concerning that too many children are living in families where parents lack secure employment. In addition, we continue to have among the worst housing cost burdens in the nation,” Stern said in the news release.

Additionally, Stern said this data indicates the profound effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on economic stability for families, as the data was collected post-pandemic.

With this new data, the report proposed various solutions and priorities for states — including ensuring access to “essential resources” like low- or no-cost meals and reliable internet access in schools, the availability of mental health care, and working toward improving chronic absence rates.

“It’s a concern to see some of the education data,” Stern said. “There have been improvements, but we’re still not in a good place, and that’s both as a state and as a country.”