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Making the GRADE

With different rules for separate tests, state and federal assessments keep school officials guessing

n the U.S. Department of Education's eyes, Neil Armstrong Middle School has fallen behind in its mission to educate kids.

The Forest Grove school, which enrolls 927 seventh- and eighth-graders, did not meet standards, set by the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, for the 2005-06 academic year.

On the flip side, NAMS was recently rated a 'strong' school by the Oregon Department of Education in its annual achievement assessment, one notch up from a 'satisfactory' rating in 2005.

NAMS isn't alone in the Jekyll-and-Hyde situation that frequently praises an individual school at the state level while criticizing it on the federal side.

Sixteen of 19 middle schools in Washington County failed to meet the U.S. Department of Education's expectations for 2006, but all were rated satisfactory or better by the state for the same time period.

The disparity often creates confusion among educators and parents as to how their schools are really doing.

Betty Flick, principal at Forest Grove's Gales Creek Elementary School, said complying with federal and state performance standards was 'like trying to hit a moving target.'

The ratings are confusing because Oregon and Washington, D.C., use different systems, Flick added.

'The two don't really correspond - I think that gives people a mixed message,' she said.

Meanwhile, NAMS Principal Sherry Adams basked in the glow of her school's 'strong' Oregon assessment, the latest rating to hit the public radar.

'It was very exciting,' Adams said last week. 'I could hardly wait to tell the kids and the staff - they've all worked so hard.'

Oregon Report Card results for 2006, which take into account test scores and attendance statistics, were issued Oct. 11. The federal No Child Left Behind analysis - which measures 'adequate yearly progress' benchmarks in several subject areas - was made public in a month earlier.

The ratings yielded a mixed bag of results for local schools.

Forest Grove High School was deemed to be a 'strong' school in the most recent state report card go-round.

Basically, that means the ODE, which uses a combination of test score and attendance data, believes that as a group, Forest Grove high schoolers are performing well - but not exceptionally well.

Banks High School and Gaston Junior/Senior High School each received 'satisfactory' state ratings, the same as a year ago.

Despite a favorable Oregon report card, the feds say that FGHS, like NAMS, has 'not met' standards in some areas where students from a broad demographic - special education students, Hispanic students, English language learning students and disadvantaged students - were tested.

Designed as a safety net for pupils in educationally 'at-risk' populations, No Child Left Behind tries to make schools more accountable for giving all students, no matter what their background or special needs, a sound education.

It can be a tough academic nut to crack, administrators say.

'I think it's difficult to meet the federal standards because they look at disaggregate populations, and at least half of the students in each group have to pass,' said Adams.

'It's difficult to do, but I wouldn't say it's impossible.'

For Adams, the federal mandate - alternately regarded as tedious, cumbersome and downright unmanageable - is still a meaningful measuring stick for schools.

The tests count, Adams said - and there's no makeup exam.

'They're a big deal because that's the expectation, and there are good reasons for it,' said Adams, whose school population is 40 percent Hispanic and lists 52 percent of its student body on free or reduced-price lunch.

'If we don't think it's important,' she added, 'then we can't put our hearts into the job we need to do.'

NAMS' 'strong' rating from the state this year represented a watershed moment for Adams. Last spring, teachers met in a kind of schoolwide pow-wow to brainstorm ways to bring the school's grade up.

'I got a copy of our report card from (district assessment coordinator) Conrad Sieber, and at first I didn't even open it up,' said Adams. 'I was assuming we were still 'satisfactory,'' she said.

When she finally did look at her school's grade, Adams was in for a shock.

'If I thought I could get away with it and not hurt myself, I would've fallen on the floor,' she said with a laugh.

Some school ratings fall

In Banks, the junior high fared the same as last year on the state assessment, earning a 'satisfactory' rating for 2006.

Two Forest Grove elementary schools, Fern Hill and Dilley, were dubbed 'exceptional' on the Oregon Report Card. Echo Shaw, Harvey Clarke and Joseph Gale were rated 'strong.'

Gales Creek and Cornelius elementary schools were deemed 'satisfactory,' plummeting from 'exceptional' last year. Both schools met the federal adequate yearly progress requirement for 2006.

Cornelius Principal Perla Rodriguez called the results 'frustrating,' saying her school was 'a tiny number of points' from a strong state rating.

'They're both so different,' Rodriguez said of the dual assessments. 'On the state report card they look at four separate areas, and Cornelius is strong or exceptional in all of them.'

Cornelius fell short of a 'strong' state rating last year because of a glitch in attendance requirements, Rodriguez said.

'We do have a high mobility rate - ours is a mobile school,' she noted. 'Even though we know a student has transferred out, we have to mark them tardy for 10 days, and it affects our statistics.

'It's mostly out of our hands.'

Extra help

At Gales Creek, 20 percent of the student body needs extra help for a whole spectrum of learning challenges, from speech and language difficulties to autism.

That fact alone skews test results for the whole group. 'It doesn't take many students to make a great deal of difference' in the tests' outcome, she noted.

Still, Flick, who came to Gales Creek two years ago from a job as the district's special education administrator, believes the assessments have value.

'They can be a tool to measure how we're performing as a school,' she said. 'It's something we definitely look at, but tests aren't everything.

'Individual student needs are much more important.'

To Susan Winterbourne, chairwoman of the Forest Grove School Board, the ratings are, at best, a double-edged sword. She agrees that student testing is essential for determining progress and deficiencies.

'We do need to know and ensure that our students are learning, and benchmark-type assessments can be an indicator of that learning,' she said.

But the use of testing as the sole measure of whether schools are meeting goals is 'irresponsible,' she added.

Board sets several goals

The Forest Grove board's goal to 'provide a superior education that challenges our students to achieve academic and personal excellence and to become world-class citizens' can become lost in the red tape of convoluted testing requirements.

Contributing to society

Current state and federal testing 'does not measure a student's ability to contribute to the community, to problem-solve interpersonal challenges or to work in a multicultural environment,' Winterbourne said.

Superintendent Jack Musser and other Forest Grove administrators are 'working hard' this year on a plan to strengthen the district's writing program across the board, something that will benefit all students, Winterbourne believes.

She'll continue to beat the drum for two-way immersion programs because 'giving students the opportunity to learn two languages is critical, especially in our global world.'

Government penalizes schools

While there are no real consequences handed down from the state to districts that oversee 'unsatisfactory' schools, the feds take a hard look at individual schools that repeatedly fail to make the grade. The government can decide to withhold financial support from high-poverty schools after three years of non-compliance.

'I don't think we've ever gotten that far' in Forest Grove, Winterbourne said.

In some cases, administrators must allow students to transfer to other schools within their district that meet the required standards, Winterbourne said. 'It's a penalty of designation, like schools that are designated as unsafe,' she noted.

No matter what the test results show - on either side of the equation - Musser and his staff annually identify initiatives 'to address areas where we want to see improvement,' Winterbourne noted.

'We evaluate our effectiveness and make changes when what we are doing doesn't work,' she said.