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Making the Grade

Context is all when it comes to understanding why some schools landed on the "failing" end of the state's report card, say district supervisors.

"The report doesn't tell the whole story," said Teresa Sayer, superintendent of the Phoenix-Talent School District.

The district's six schools run the gamut in the new five-tier rating system unveiled by the Oregon Department of Education last week. Talent Elementary scored the highest mark, a Level 5. Armadillo Technical Institute in Phoenix received the lowest, a Level 1. The other four were ranked in the middle of the pack of Jackson County's 59 schools.

The report cards take into account teacher training, attendance, student test scores, student poverty levels and graduation rates, among other criteria. The new system replaces previous ratings of "outstanding," "satisfactory" and "in need of improvement."

In Jackson County, 36 schools received Level 4 or 5.

Talent Elementary's Level 5 rating means it performed in the top 10 percent of schools statewide. Armadillo's Level 1 means it ranked in the lowest 5 percent.

"Elementary schools are rated differently than high schools; Armadillo has had some important improvements," Sayer said, citing staffing and other changes.

Other lowest-ranked schools in Jackson County are Prospect Charter School, Central Medford High School and the Upper Rogue Center for Educational Opportunities in Eagle Point. All had low test scores, low student growth, poor achievement by low-income students and, in the case of high schools, exceedingly poor graduation rates, according to state standards.

These schools, whose mission is to help struggling students, are going to receive lower marks when rated against schools where the majority of the student body does not face similar challenges, Sayer said.

"People need to understand the numbers are norm-based, and we are also being measured against all other schools in Oregon. That means there will always be 1s and 2s in the grading system," Sayer said.

Sayer praised the new system for providing data that allows schools to see how they compare against others that more closely ally with their demographics. But she also said the summary information should be used more as a "conversation starter" for educators, parents and students.

"I hope people take the time to understand this is but one measure. Some amazing academic gains are being overshadowed by report card formulas," Sayer said.

The states' summary information is helpful for schools to build improvement plans and to share best practices, she said.

"We have action steps to getting better," Sayer said. "The question is are they working? If they aren't, then we can implement improvements."

In the case of Prospect Charter School, Superintendent Don Alexander argues the school should have received a Level 2 on its report card.

A half-point discrepancy might bump the charter school up a notch, Alexander insisted. But he added he hasn't yet discussed it with the state. Meanwhile, he concedes the school has not scored "really well" under the past system.

"Our reading scores are OK. But our math scores are pretty poor," Alexander said.

The five-year-old K-12 school has struggled since its enrollment climbed from 140 to 240 students because of the open enrollment policies of charter schools, he said.

As long as there is space in the classrooms, "we have to accept anybody who enrolls," Alexander said, adding many new students have come from Shady Cove, Eagle Point and White City.

Alexander said the state's test scores don't reflect a graduate's success.

"We've had 23 graduates," Alexander said. "Six are in the military now. And more than half of the remaining ones are enrolled in a two- or four-year college. Those students are happy they were in Prospect."

Eagle Point scuttled Upper Rogue Center for Educational Opportunities, the district's former alternative educational program that scored a 1 this year, for a new online program.

URCEO had been more of a place to "catch kids who were not successful in other school settings," said Eagle Point Superintendent Cynda Rickert.

The new D9Online has the goal of offering more ways for all students to get an education, specifically those who are homeschooled, Rickert said, adding she hopes the changes will result in a higher rating for the new school.

Level 2 schools are considered to be in serious need of improvement. Four schools in the county fell into this allotment: Butte Falls Charter, Logos Public Charter, Rivers Edge Academy Charter and Rogue River Elementary.

Rogue River Superintendent Paul Young said the district's schools are in transition to Common Core Standards. The current report card is based upon the existing standards and the OAKS test.

"We knew that these changes would not reflect as well as we wished in this state report card. This has been discussed in multiple board meetings in the past," Young said.

The state will make its assessments based on the new standards in the 2014-15 school year, he said.

"At that time we expect to see a jump in our test scores because our state tests and curriculum will again be in alignment," Young said.

Meanwhile, Young said the true measure of the system is the end product.

"The Rogue River School District continues to provide a good education in a safe environment. We are in the process of making that education even better. As we improve our schools, please pardon our dust," he said.

Eleven of Medford's 21 schools received a Level 4 under the new system. Madrone Trail Public Charter School scored a Level 5. Medford's lone Level 1 score came from Central Medford High School, which faces rapidly changing demographics and other challenges, said Superintendent Phil Long.

Budget constraints and Central's rapid increase in the Latino population did not allow the school to meet the state's goal of balancing the ethnicity ratios of teachers and students, Long said, adding it will take time to match the teaching staff to reflect the new demographics.

Additionally, the high school has a larger percentage of students who require special interventions and additional support in order to make it to graduation. Students experiencing significant stress and disruptions in their lives often take five years or more to graduate, he said.

Logos' students who have been homeschooled may not have received the same type or level of education that aligns well with state standards, Long said. The results are that many scored below average in the state assessments. But Logos testing has shown growth in student performance over the past three years, he said.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or email sspecht@mailtribune.com.

Armadillo’s students have individualized their lockers with their own creative style. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell - Bob Pennell