Southern Oregon educators called on Congress during a town hall meeting Wednesday to change the system for gauging students' academic performance and set realistic expectations for special education and limited English pupils under the No Child Left Behind Act.

Southern Oregon educators called on Congress during a town hall meeting Wednesday to change the system for gauging students' academic performance and set realistic expectations for special education and limited English pupils under the No Child Left Behind Act.

The federal law is up for renewal this year, raising the possibility of significant reform.

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Oregon schools Superintendent Susan Castillo are traveling the state to solicit suggestions from educators and parents about how to improve the law.

On Wednesday, Wyden and a state education official stopped at Howard Elementary in Medford to hear from educators and parents in Southern Oregon.

A Senate committee is poised to begin reviewing the law in the next month.

While educators have generally praised the underlying concept of the act — holding schools accountable for giving all students an adequate education — some view parts of the law as counterintuitive and unfairly formulaic.

Under the law passed five years ago, students are assessed annually in core subjects such as math, reading, writing and science in third through eighth and 10th grades. Test scores by subgroups arranged according to race, socioeconomic status, disability and English proficiency are tracked by grade. The law calls for bringing all students up to grade level in reading and math by 2014, regardless of circumstance.

"I, and I know a lot of my colleagues, feel as if we must teach what we believe will be on the (state) test in order for students to pass," said Cheryl Lashley, who teaches second and third grades at Howard. "We are giving up a lot on what we know to be good for kids" because of No Child Left Behind.

"When the scores are printed in the newspaper, unless they go into classrooms and see where students started and ended, it's not always a fair portrayal," she said.

That's especially true among pupils speaking limited English who could show significant progress but not meet grade level, educators said. It's unfair to compare them to students whose native language is English, they said.

To expect a student in a wheelchair with multiple disabilities to perform the same as a students with a mild learning disability is "ludicrous," said Julie York, student services director in the Medford School District.

Meanwhile, teachers regardless of experience must be endorsed in the subject they're teaching to be considered highly qualified under the law.

In some cases, social studies teachers with 20 to 25 years of experience have been deemed as not being highly qualified because they don't have an endorsement in economics or geography, said Ashland schools Superintendent Juli Di Chiro.

Test scores by subgroup, test participation and attendance are calculated annually to determine whether each school has made adequate yearly progress (AYP).

Failing to meet one expectation such as 95 percent test participation can mean a school fails to meet AYP even if students passed the tests overall.

"We've found that participation can fall below 95 percent just because of some parents of special education students who opt out of the assessment because they see it as an exercise in futility," said Di Chiro.

Schools that fail to meet AYP or whose teachers are not endorsed in the subject they're teaching are required to issue letters to notify parents.

"The (federal) system needs to be simple enough to explain to parents," said Tim Mobley, curriculum director for the Phoenix-Talent School District. "How do you explain why 70 percent of students passed writing but can't pass the reading component of the assessment? It doesn't seem to make sense."

Castillo has sought to change Oregon's accountability system to gauge student performance by tracking pupils individually from year to year rather than rating performance by comparing two separate groups of students.

Southern Oregon educators expressed support for the proposal, known as the Growth Model.

"We need to be accountable because we are public servants who use public funds, but the accountability model we have now simply hasn't been working," Di Chiro said. "We truly need a growth model to compare how a student did a year ago or two years ago instead of comparing one group of kids to another group of kids."

Six states have been approved for a Growth Model pilot program. Oregon's application for the program was rejected twice. Oregon education officials say they want to continue fine-tuning their proposal to apply for the program again next year. They have asked the state Legislature for $1.3 million to develop a database for tracking individual pupils.

Wyden said he would push in Congress to make the model available to all states.

"I want to see that go beyond a pilot program and emphasize that the Growth Model is common sense," he said.

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or pachen@mailtribune.com.