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Forest Grove's Tom McCall Upper Elementary passes Adequate Yearly Progress reading test in time to avoid expensive sanctions, at least for now
by: Chase Allgood Remedial classes around the Forest Grove School District are designed to boost test performance.

Students at Tom McCall Upper Elementary School met academic targets in reading last year, narrowly avoiding underperformance sanctions that could have cost the Forest Grove School District a fist-full of money.

Staff at the school, which houses 880 fifth and sixth graders, were under immense pressure to bring language arts test scores up to par with U.S. Department of Education guidelines after being punished for missing state Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) targets in that subject two years in a row. That meant Tom McCall was required to pay transportation costs for students wanting transfers to the district's only other school offering grades five and six, Forest Grove Community School.

Had its students not met the reading standard for a third consecutive year, Tom McCall was in danger of being bumped into an even more notorious category for missing federal No Child Left Behind Act academic targets: a hefty financial hand-slap.

According to Crystal Greene, public affairs manager for the Oregon Department of Education, which released preliminary AYP results for for 2010-11 last week, a third failure would have required the district to set aside 20 percent of its federal Title I allotment of $1.8 million, or about $360,000, for outside interventions, including tutoring and related services, at Tom McCall next year.

That would have hit the district squarely in the 2011-12 budget, already bleeding after $7.5 million in cuts last spring, said human resources specialist Dave Willard.

'Since much of the Title I money is used to provide direct instruction - reading teachers and instructional assistants - it would have [meant] further reductions to direct services to students,' he said.

For now, Tom McCall principal Chandra Cooper can heave a big sigh of relief - her school is off the performance hook in reading.

But it's on the hook for not meeting the mark in mathematics, Greene said.

'Tom McCall did not meet the math standard for Hispanic students [or] students with disabilities,' noted Greene, adding that a second failure in 2011-12 would put the school into improvement status for math beginning in 2012-13.

It will move out of school improvement status for reading if students meet performance targets for a second straight year in 2011-12. And the school may no longer offer in-district transfers to other schools.

Bar set high

Federal performance targets require all K-12 students to meet rigorous state academic standards by the 2013-14 school year.

The state's set of benchmarks, called the Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, required 70 percent of a school's student population to pass reading and math tests in 2010-12, 10 percent more than in past years.

'We definitely have set the bar higher in both subject areas,' noted Greene. 'The standards make it significantly harder for kids to meet in math.'

Across the state, the higher performance targets took a toll, with half of Oregon's public schools dropping below standards in the most recent test period.

Only 54 percent of all high schools in the state passed AYP, according to the preliminary data.

Banks fails, Gaston passes

In the Banks School District, not one school managed to meet overall federal targets despite reaching goals the year before.

Elementary students and high schoolers met the APY standard in reading, but middle schoolers did not.

None of the schools passed in math.

Still, the district met its cohort graduation rate target, with 85.4 percent of students who started with the district in 2006 earning a diploma - well above the target of 65 percent.

Gaston schools fared better, with that district passing AYP in math and reading for the third year in a row.

To earn its passing grades, all student subgroups - economically disadvantaged, those with disabilities, limited English proficient and cultural designations including Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander, American Indian, White or Multi-Ethnic - met standards.

Mostly positive

In Forest Grove, the results were largely positive, with the exception of Neil Armstrong Middle School and Fern Hill and Joseph Gale elementaries, which did not pass AYP.

Overall, Tom McCall didn't meet standards either. But Assistant Superintendent John O'Neill focused Tuesday on that school's gains in reading.

'Overall I'm very pleased with our schools' performance in terms of AYP status,' O'Neill said. 'We're pleased with Tom McCall and all the other schools that met their targets.'

O'Neill credited the district's three-year-old 'data team' process, which gets teachers together to track individual student progress and plan for 'tailor made' instruction, with the bulk of the gains.

Reading curriculum a help?

It's unclear whether a controversial new K-6 reading curriculum, piloted at Tom McCall during lasts school year's second semester, contributed to the success, O'Neill said.

But he insisted the Reading Street program, adopted by the school board last spring amid public outcry against the expense, could be instrumental in future AYP gains.

'Next year will be more indicative of how that curriculum will perform,' O'Neill said.

Asked whether spending $550,000 on the reading adoption was a good hedge against possibly having had to earmark $360,000 for tutoring sanctions, O'Neill said, 'I would say that's a good trade, yes.'

Teachers will be fully implementing the curriculum in 2011-12, he added.

Forest Grove High School's two-year track record for passing AYP was especially impressive, said principal Karen Robinson.

'It says a lot about our kids and our staff that we were able to do this,' she said.

Robinson also credited remedial workshop classes, another hotly-debated topic last school year, as the intervention that worked to produce FGHS's AYP streak.

'The workshops have been tremendously effective with all of our student subgroups,' she said. 'It's a big, big deal, especially when you look at other high schools with similar demographics to ours.'

Forest Grove High enrolls about 1,950 students.