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Improving schools still get an 'F' on test scores

Many Jackson County students scored higher than ever on the state's standardized test this year, but you wouldn't know it by looking at the test scores report released Tuesday.

That's because more than half of the county's schools didn't quite clear the higher benchmarks, so by the federal government's standards, they failed. In other words, the schools largely improved — in some cases by double-percentage points — but not enough.

It's a frustrating situation that's only expected to get worse unless the federal No Child Left Behind law is revised, local superintendents said Wednesday.

"I'm terribly frustrated — I want to stomp my heels and spit in my office and all that kind of stuff," said Eagle Point Superintendent Cynda Rickert, whose entire district has been labeled as "needing improvement" for the fourth year in a row. "But the bottom line is, getting mad doesn't help our district. I have to focus on our successes, because we did improve across the board, regardless of how we've been labeled."

About 57 percent, or 36, of the county's 63 schools failed to make adequate yearly progress as required under the No Child Left Behind law, according to the preliminary data.

That's a 50 percent increase over the number of schools that didn't meet progress standards during the 2009-10 academic year.

Every district in the county except tiny Pinehurst had at least one school that didn't meet progress standards during the 2010-11 academic year.

Much of that is because the hurdles were higher this year. Superintendents at all the largest districts — Ashland, Medford, Central Point, Eagle Point and Phoenix-Talent — said a number of their schools on the failing list actually would have passed if the state and federal standards hadn't been increased dramatically.

"That's a sad question to ask, because it turns out all our schools that didn't meet this year would have if the standards hadn't increased," said Samantha Steele, Central Point's director of education.

This year the state changed the way it scored math tests for grades 3 through 8, requiring students to get more answers right to pass.

At the same time, changes in federal law make it more difficult for schools to meet adequate yearly progress. Now, 70 percent of students, including those in special education, must pass the English and math tests in order for a school to clear the benchmark, up from the 59 percent passing rate in math and 60 percent in reading previously required.

The federal law sets targets each year for an increasing number of students to reach state academic standards, with the goal of all students meeting math and reading and writing benchmarks by 2014.

Specific subgroups, such as students who are Hispanic, American Indian, black, still learning English or with disabilities, must meet the same benchmarks. Schools also must meet an attendance or graduation requirement to meet overall progress goals.

A number of schools in the county landed on the failing list this year because their special-education or English-learning subgroups didn't clear the benchmarks.

The vast majority of students at Walker Elementary School in Ashland, for example, passed the test but special education students failed the math portion, causing the entire school to fail progress standards, Superintendent Juli Di Chiro said.

The story is the same statewide this year. Only 54 percent of Oregon schools met standards, down from 71 percent the previous year.

"These results do not mean that our students or our schools are doing worse — in fact, we know from preliminary assessment results that student performance is on the rise," State Schools Superintendent Susan Castillo said in a release.

Castillo has called on Congress to revise the No Child Left Behind law and she is working with leaders in other states to try to obtain waivers and more flexibility in the meantime.

Rickert, who has worked in education for 37 years, said the federal law had good intentions to hold schools more accountable, but it went too far.

"Everybody's failing — it got too extreme," she said. "You get a lot more by encouraging and supporting teachers and students, but instead of positive reinforcement, No Child Left Behind is in its stages of being punitive."

Overall, students in Eagle Point scored higher on the state test than ever before, but that didn't save a majority of the district's schools from landing on the failing list, Rickert said.

"District 9, in fact, has shown growth since last year in all sub groups at all three levels, elementary, middle and high," she said in an e-mail message to administrators.

Similarly, the number of Phoenix-Talent students who passed the English test increased from 71 to 80 percent. Math passing rates increased from 63 to 72 percent, said Teresa Sayre, director of instructional services.

But, despite those large gains, all of the schools in the district landed on the failing list, because some subgroups, such as those for special-education and English-learning students, didn't do as well.

Sayre said she's concerned the district's poor performance by federal standards will obscure the real improvements students made last academic year.

"We're working really hard and then when something comes out like this, it's defeating and, almost in a sense, demoralizing, because this isn't really telling our story," she said. "I worry that it will discourage people and they'll stop doing the good work they're doing now."

Reach reporter Hannah Guzik at 541-776-4459 or email hguzik@mailtribune.com.