August 5, 2008

More Oregon Schools Stumble Behind

By Betsy Hammond, The Oregonian, Portland, Ore.

Aug. 5--More than 430 Oregon schools failed to reach federal performance targets this year, the worst showing in six years under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

The poor showing was caused by falling test scores in middle schools and a higher bar for schools to jump this year, according to Tony Alpert, director of assessment and accountability for the Oregon Department of Education, which issued the ratings Monday.

Under No Child Left Behind, schools are supposed to get all their students to read and do math at grade level by 2014. The ratings suggest that Oregon and other states won't make that deadline.

States were allowed to start with lower goals and raise them over time, and Oregon opted to begin in 2003 with a goal of having 40 percent of students pass state tests.

This year, schools were supposed to get about 60 percent of their students to pass reading and math exams, up from about 50 percent last year. That tripped up more than one in three Oregon public schools.

For now, most of them face no consequences.

But if schools fall short of the targets again next year, and if they accept federal money to help disadvantaged students, nearly 100 schools could be ordered to give their students priority transfer rights and free bus rides to attend a higher performing school.

Among the schools that must improve their results or else offer students transfers in fall 2009 are McKinley Elementary in Beaverton, Banks Elementary, Highland Elementary in Gresham, Harvey Scott Elementary in Portland and Mooberry Elementary in Hillsboro.

Parents and educators at many of those schools bristled at the idea of their school being branded failures.

Katie Strobel, a parent who volunteers at Highland Elementary, said the school offers a great education, but its reputation will be hurt by the federal label.

Overall, about 70 percent of Highland students passed state tests, but only about 40 percent of students learning English as a second language passed -- so the school's performance is graded as inadequate.

"You can tell when you're in our building that people are doing everything they can for the kids," she said.

No Child Left Behind, signed into law in 2001, holds every public school accountable for its reading and math scores plus its attendance or graduation rate. Schools must get every group of students, including special education students, minorities and those learning English as a second language, to pass state tests at high rates. If a school fails to get a single group to do well on the tests, it is rated inadequate.

That can be unfair, says Susan McKinney, principal at McKinley. The school had its best test scores ever in 2008, with more than 80 percent of students meeting grade-level benchmarks, she said.

But only 34 percent of its special education students passed the state reading test, so the school is labeled as not meeting federal standards.

"My students, the teachers -- it's not fair they have to live with this 'not met,' because on all counts, they are succeeding," McKinney said.

Other Oregon educators said they look carefully at the ratings, and at the test scores that underlie them, and view them as one important indicator of where they need to work harder.

At Tigard High, Principal Jon Schuhl calls the annual performance report the equivalent of a yearly doctor's checkup.

This year's report highlights his school's successes at getting special education students and those learning English as a second language to read well. But it also points out the need to improve math instruction for many groups of students and to improve learning among Latino students.

The federal ratings matter most in schools that receive federal Title I money to help low-income students. Those schools face escalating consequences, from offering free transfers to revamping their curriculum, if they fail to reach the performance targets for two years in a row.

In Oregon, about 65 percent of elementary schools get Title I money, compared with about 20 percent of middle schools and about 10 percent of high schools.

Statewide, 36 schools will face consequences this fall.

Six of them are in trouble with the feds for the first time and must notify families this month, including Ron Russell Middle School in the David Douglas School District, Tom McCall Upper Elementary in Forest Grove and Sitton Elementary in Portland.

Statewide last year, 2,543 students who were offered the right to transfer under No Child Left Behind did so, the state reports.

Twenty-five of the schools facing consequences this fall are chronic poor performers and will have to pay for students to get free tutoring from an outside group or company. Statewide, 2,031 students accepted that free tutoring last year.

Six of the 25 most troubled schools are in Portland, including all three small high schools on the Roosevelt High campus and the BizTech academy on the Marshall High campus.

Most of those poor ratings stemmed from stubbornly low graduation rates at the small high schools and across the Portland School District. District leaders said the ratings drove home that they need to step up efforts to stem the dropout problem.

"These results remind us that the steps we're taking to reform high schools need to remain a top priority," said Portland Superintendent Carole Smith.

Alpert said there were plenty of bright spots in Monday's ratings. He noted that many schools that serve mainly low-income students, who can be challenging to teach, hit every federal performance target. They include Whitcomb Elementary in Milwaukie, Vose Elementary in Beaverton, Rigler and Clark elementaries in Portland and five of the seven elementary schools in the David Douglas School District.

Binnsmead and Lane middle schools in Portland, where more than 80 percent of the students are low-income, both achieved a turnaround in 2007-08 and hit every federal performance target. Both made huge strides in getting special education students to meet state reading and math benchmarks.

Casey Parks, Stephen Beaven, Melissa Navas, Michelle Trappen and Maya Blackmun of The Oregonian contributed to this report.


To see more of The Oregonian, or to subscribe the newspaper, go to

Copyright (c) 2008, The Oregonian, Portland, Ore.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

For reprints, email [email protected], call 800-374-7985 or 847-635-6550, send a fax to 847-635-6968, or write to The Permissions Group Inc., 1247 Milwaukee Ave., Suite 303, Glenview, IL 60025, USA.