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Room to improve

Failing math test scores have landed the entire Medford School District in the federal equivalent of after-school detention — forcing the district to make a plan to improve student performance.

For the second time in two years, the Medford School District "needs improvement," according to the federal No Child Left Behind law. Since the state announced the news earlier this month, district administrators, teachers and classroom assistants have been making plans to boost test scores and comply with the federal sanctions that come with being in "improvement status."

"What it essentially means is we have to set aside federal dollars to focus on professional development and things that will improve instruction," Superintendent Phil Long said. "We have to submit our plans to the state."

The situation is frustrating for school officials because math test scores actually have improved significantly over the past two years — but they haven't improved enough to lift the district out of the federal status.

This year the state and federal government raised testing benchmarks, making it even harder for students to pass, particularly in math.

"The discouraging thing for kids and parents and educators about No Child Left Behind is that it makes the assumption that education is like a track hurdle event," Long said. "It does not make an allowance for the students that may trip over a hurdle or run more slowly. It says that everyone runs at same rate."

Twelve of the district's 21 schools failed to make adequate yearly progress in math under the federal law, since they didn't have enough students pass the test. The schools that failed the math portion are Howard, Jefferson, Kennedy, Lone Pine, Oak Grove, Roosevelt, Washington and Wilson elementary schools; Hedrick and McLoughlin middle schools; and Central and North Medford high schools.

Twenty-seven other districts in Oregon, including Eagle Point, are in improvement status this year. A district falls into improvement status when test scores in a particular subject, such as reading or math, aren't high enough at the elementary-, middle- and high-school levels for at least one category of students, which could include those who are economically disadvantaged, in special education or learning English.

The state takes "corrective action" against districts in improvement status, which can include deferring or reducing funds, instituting new curricula, replacing personnel, appointing a trustee to run the district, or abolishing or restructuring the district.

Typically the state asks a district to create an improvement plan that includes at least one of the above sanctions.

The Medford district is working on an improvement plan and will send it to the Oregon Department of Education this fall, said Terri Dahl, district supervisor of federal programs and school improvement.

"Because we are in school improvement status, we'll add specific areas to our district plan that address the areas that we need to pursue," she said.

The plan will detail how the district plans to set aside 10 percent of its Title 1 federal funding for programs designed to help boost test scores, per No Child Left Behind requirements.

The district receives about $4 million in Title 1 federal funding, mostly for low-income students, each year, Dahl said. About $400,000 of that now will be spent on learning-intervention specialists and professional development for teachers, she said.

District officials are in the process of filling the equivalent of two-and-a-half full-time reading intervention positions. They also are hiring another full-time math-intervention specialist, giving the district a total of three such specialists, Dahl said.

"We're doing data analysis to identify the areas we need to concentrate on and the special populations, such as English language learners and special education students," she said. "And we're having staff trainings targeting those specific areas to meet the needs of those students."

The specialists will be available to help students at all schools, she said.

Because the district has to use $400,000 of its federal funds for professional development and learning intervention, there will be less money available for some other programs, Dahl said.

"Basically, this is why we could no longer fund extended-day kindergarten," she said.

Running a district in improvement status has convinced Long that the federal law should be amended, he said.

"While No Child Left Behind has certainly pushed accountability and has improved instruction in many ways," he said, "it also has sort of marginalized certain students who could eventually finish the race or jump more hurdles if they were provided more help and time."

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

Above: Washington Elementary teacher Julie Weaver spends one of her last days of summer vacation preparing her second-grade classroom. Washington Elementary was one of 12 schools in the Medford district that didn't make adequate progress in math under the No Child Left Behind law.