Critics say the state's annual study is flawed, results are meaningless

The Oregon Department of Education released its third annual 'report cards' on the state's elementary and secondary schools Thursday. And one thing was again obvious: the department was not grading on a curve.

Almost 99 percent of the states' schools were judged to be 'satisfactory,' 'strong,' or 'exceptional.' Fifty-five percent were judged to be 'strong' or 'exceptional.' And only 14 of 1,112 schools across the state were given 'low' or 'unacceptable' ratings. The overall ratings were slightly better than those on last year's state report cards.

The education department judged Portland schools equally favorably. Ninety-two of 95 schools in the Portland district were given ratings of 'satisfactory,' 'strong' or 'exceptional.' More than two-thirds of the schools Ñ 66 Ñ were given scores of 'strong' or 'exceptional.'

In smaller Portland school districts, seven of 12 David Douglas district schools were given a 'strong' rating, as were three of six Parkrose district schools.

So what does this mean? Anything from evidence of constantly improving schools to a worthless exercise with worthless data. It depends on whom you listen to.

The annual state report cards Ñ required by the 1999 state Legislature Ñ are based on a formula that considers how a school's students do on state tests, whether and how much that school's students have improved on the tests over several years, and the attendance or dropout rate at the school. The formula also considers the percentage of a school's students who take the state tests.

The report cards are intended to track a school's progress in helping students reach state achievement standards. But as the annual reports increasingly rate almost all schools as successful, some critics are calling the reports useless.

'It's nothing but a snow job to convince the public that their kids are getting a decent education,' said Ron Herndon, a Portland education activist and leader of the Education Crisis Team that has criticized the quality of schools in some of Portland's low-income and minority neighborhoods. 'It's not an accurate reflection of performance. You can set a formula up to give you what you want, and that's what they've done.'

State officials defend the report cards as being accurate assessments of whether an Oregon school is improving. Most are, state officials said.

'It doesn't mean they're where they want to be,' said Nanci Schneider, project manager for the state report cards. 'It means they are moving in the direction where they want to be and making progress toward their goals.'

If a school isn't showing steady improvement in the areas the formula tracks, their ratings decline, Schneider said.

Statewide, 236 schools improved their ratings from last year, 114 saw ratings declines, while ratings for the remaining 722 schools stayed the same.

Improvement and decline was more equal in Portland Public Schools: 14 schools saw their ratings decline from last year's report cards, while 13 saw them improve. Ratings for the rest remained the same. One school Ñ Marshall High School, which the state allowed to go unrated last year Ñ saw its rating improve from 'low' two years ago to satisfactory this year.

Meanwhile, the state rated six Portland district schools as 'exceptional,' compared to four with that rating last year. (Forty-nine schools were rated 'exceptional' across the state.) The Portland schools rated exceptional are: Hollyrood Elementary School, Skyline Elementary School, Forest Park Elementary School, Fernwood Middle School, Portsmouth Middle School and Metropolitan Learning Center.

Three Portland district schools were rated 'low' Ñ Whitaker Middle School and Jefferson and Roosevelt high schools; only Jefferson and Roosevelt were rated 'low' last year. None of Portland's schools was given the lowest 'unacceptable' rating either this year or last year.

One Portland middle school saw its second rating improvement in as many years. Two years ago, the education department gave Ockley Green Middle School in North Portland Ñ one of 14 schools that the Education Crisis Team has focused on as a troubled school Ñ a 'low' rating. After improving to 'satisfactory' last year, the school's rating improved to 'strong' in this year's report card.

With help from grants, the school has undergone comprehensive school reform over the last few years, which has meant more teacher training, more assessment of student skills and more groupings of students at similar levels, said Sonja Hoffman, an instructional specialist at the school.

Teachers believed the changes were working; ratings like this confirm it, Hoffman said.

'It really is self-affirming that the hard work and the reform and the changes we've made are really successful for students,' she said.

Pat Burk, deputy superintendent of Portland Public Schools, said the overall district results are 'certainly very welcome and good news.'

But he also said the formula's weaknesses mean a consistently good school can get varying ratings from year to year and mean the annual report cards don't always provide much rating difference between good schools and bad schools.

'I would say there is certainly room to improve on the ability of the reports to highlight need for improvement,' he said. The report card 'is a general indicator of overall progress, but it's not sufficient. (As a parent) you'd want the local school to go even deeper.'

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