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Success or failure?

When it comes to No Child Left Behind standards, schools find themselves in no-win situation

As the annual Adequate Yearly Progress reports were released by the Oregon Department of Education for 2010-11 at the beginning of the month, the news across the state was all the same: Our schools are failing.

This year, 54 percent of Oregon schools were deemed inadequate under rising standards imposed by the No Child Left Behind Act. A record 80 schools failed to meet standards for the second consecutive year, placing them on the nation's troubled schools list.

On the surface, the news in Estacada seemed to be equally disheartening, as just two of the five traditional schools in the Estacada School District were determined to have 'met' standards. A deeper look, however, shows these numbers can be misleading.

Background on Standards

To understand what all of this means, one has to start with how a school falls under the classification of 'met' or 'not met.' For any school across the country to meet the performance standards, it must have a certain percentage of students pass both the math and English tests. If schools fail to achieve the required percentage, they can still meet the standards if they show adequate levels of academic growth.

The most confusing part, however, is that students also are divided into subgroups: economically disadvantaged, limited English proficiency, and students with disabilities, as well as various ethnic classifications. For a school to meet the national standards, each of these subgroups must also meet the standard as an individual group.

'The No Child Left Behind program gets a lot of negative publicity, but it forces us to not only measure schools by our overall average, but to focus on the kids who aren't meeting these standards and have essentially been riding the coattails of other students,' said Tina Rhue, the district's school improvement director.

As an example, River Mill Elementary School earned the status of 'not met' this year for the first time ever. The target achievement level was 70 percent of all students meeting the standard for both the math and English sections. In English, 92.49 percent of the students met the standard, while in math, met rate was 72.71 percent. Until this point the school had met the standard, but that is where the subgroups come into play.

In English, every subgroup in the school met the standard, but in math, all but one group met the standard, with the lone exception being the 'Economically Disadvantaged' group (students who get free or discounted lunch).

That group of students passed the math section only 68.26 percent of the time, falling just 2 percent short of the standard, and because of this, the school as a whole was classified as having failed to meet standards. (As a side note, teachers and school officials have no knowledge of which kids are receiving free or discounted lunches, to avoid discrimination).

No Child Left Behind raises standards

In the 2009-10 school year, schools were expected to achieve 59 percent of students passing the math exam and 60 percent passing the English exam. Both of those numbers were raised to 70 percent this year, and they will continue to increase by 10 percent every year until 2014.

What makes this even more difficult is that the score required to pass the test also was increased across the board for the math test. Essentially, schools were told they need to have a higher number of students pass the test despite the fact that the minimum passing score was also being raised.

To put the necessary scores into perspective, consider that, in 2009-2010, a fourth-grader would have to earn a passing score of 212 and a fifth-grader, a score of 218. In 2010-2011, a fourth-grader was now expected to earn a score of 219, which is one point higher than a student one year older was required to score the year before.

'They were expecting these kids to experience two years of academic growth in just one year, and then they were expecting a higher percentage of kids to do it,' Rhue said.

Estacada's story

Despite the troubling information, the news in Estacada was mostly positive.

Estacada High School met all standards for the second consecutive year, making it one of just eight high schools in Clackamas County to meet the standards. What makes this so important is that Estacada High School had failed to meet the national standards for seven consecutive years before the last two years. Estacada High was among just 36 percent of high schools that met the standards in the entire state and one of just 85 (out of 283 statewide) to have passed for the second consecutive year.

While the middle school earned the classification of 'not met,' the news couldn't be more misleading. The only subgroup that failed to meet the standards was the Students with Disabilities group, which was just one passed test short of meeting the required improvement in Math. In Oregon this year, only 18 percent of middle schools were determined to have met the standards.

The toughest news for the district came at the elementary school level, where, until this year, no school had ever failed to meet standards. While Clackamas River Elementary continued that trend, both Eagle Creek and River Mill earned the status of 'not met.'

While River Mill's one slip-up was outlined earlier, Eagle Creek was the school with the most room for improvement. This year, the Economically Disadvantaged, Limited English Proficient, Students with Disabilities and Hispanic Origin subgroups all failed to meet the required math standards. While nearly all of these groups would have met last year's required 59 percent pass rate despite the added materials, the increase to 70 percent left them below requirements.

'I'm not embarrassed to show these results to anyone,' Rhue said, 'because our end-of-the-year school report card says we're a great school and despite the fact that these tests make it sound like our schools are failures; that's just not true.'

Moving on from here

Steve Christiansen, the district's test coordinator, put things in perspective. Twelve years ago, when Christiansen arrived at the district, the high school had 50 percent of students pass the reading test and 30 percent pass the math test. Just this past year, the high school's passing rates (including adjustments for margin of error) were 86 percent in English and 70 percent in math. In fact, this past year alone yielded a 16 percent improvement in math despite the added material.

'Given the limited resources we have and the challenges we face in educating a more diverse and 'less interested in school' generation, we're doing well,' Christiansen said, 'and I think part of that is we've done a better job identifying what students haven't been learning.'

Christiansen also mentioned a few things that the schools have been doing to improve these scores. At the high school, administrators have added intervention classes so that students who aren't meeting the standards can spend more time in each subject, and have also overhauled the school's grading and assessment structure.

'We're not driven only by these tests, and only by one method of measurement,' Christiansen said, 'but we look at things like attendance, graduation rates, SAT scores and AP classes as goals -- all areas we are doing well in.'

More info

For more information about each school's performance on the AYP tests, scores can be downloaded from the Oregon Department of Education's website at ode.state.or.us.