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Report cards get a little tougher

New rating standards result in some slightly lower marks

The idea was that the state Department of Education would make its annual report cards for individual Oregon public schools tougher this year.

And it did Ñ barely. A year after judging 99 percent of the state's schools 'satisfactory,' 'strong,' or 'exceptional,' the department released report cards Thursday that said 97 percent of the state's schools fit one of those three categories.

And in the Portland district? Ninety of 94 Portland schools were given the top three ratings, compared with 92 of 95 last year.

The state report cards were harsher on a handful of schools Ñ including North Portland's Roosevelt High School Ñ which got an 'unacceptable' rating, one of seven such ratings in the state. The state gave no 'unacceptable' ratings last year.

But in general, the report cards show that most Oregon schools, and most Portland area schools, are doing a good job, state officials said.

'We raised the requirements to earn the various ratings, but we still have a very positive showing by most schools,' said Oregon Schools Superintendent Susan Castillo, who started in her job this month.

'Despite declining resources, schools are doing a good job,' said Nanci Schneider, who coordinates the report cards for the education department.

Critics of the report cards scoffed at the notion that 97 percent of the state's schools were satisfactory or better at educating children.

The report cards 'are virtually useless' to parents, said Carrie Adams, a Portland advocate for poor and minority students. 'I think they're intentionally confusing. And I think they're misleading, because I think the ratings inflate what's actually happening.'

Other Portland area district schools did as well on the report cards as those in the Portland district. Eleven of 12 schools in the David Douglas district, eight of nine schools in the Centennial school district, and five of six in the Parkrose school district were judged to be 'satisfactory' or better.

Three of the state's 'unacceptable' schools were in Multnomah County, however. Besides Roosevelt Ñ where only 21 percent of 10th-graders met state reading standards last year Ñ the other local 'unacceptable' schools were alternative high schools: AIM alternative high school in the David Douglas district and the Centennial Learning Center in the Centennial district.

Three Portland district schools also were give 'low' ratings: Jefferson and Madison high schools and Lane Middle School.

On the more positive side of the ratings, eight Portland schools Ñ Abernethy, Alameda, Buckman, Forest Park, Laurelhurst, Skyline and Markham elementary schools and Lincoln High School Ñ were rated 'exceptional.' The Centennial district's Lynch Meadows also was rated 'exceptional.'

The state rated six Portland district schools Ñ and no Centennial district schools Ñ exceptional last year.

'I'm delighted, of course,' said Abernethy Principal Tammy Barron, whose school has improved its rating in each of the last two years. 'We have made significant improvement over the last few years, and that goes directly to how hard the teachers have worked putting together priorities within our school improvement plan.'

The state Legislature required the Department of Education to issue the annual report cards beginning in 2000 to help parents and others assess how well a school was doing.

The report card ratings have been, and remain, based on formulas that consider how students do on standardized state tests, whether and how much students have improved on the tests over several years, and the attendance and dropout rates at a school, among other things.

But the Department of Education tweaked part of the formula this year Ñ in response to concerns that not only were good ratings too easy to get but that a school's rating could change too haphazardly from year to year, and that the report card's formulas were too confusing, according to Schneider.

Among the changes:

• Student performance is now based on an average of the last two years' test scores, instead of just the previous year's scores.

• A greater percentage of students must meet or nearly meet state assessment standards for the school to be judged satisfactory.

Still, all the changes yielded only marginally different overall results.

More schools were rated exceptional Ñ 91 this year compared with 50 last year Ñ but fewer were rated 'strong,' the next best category Ñ 399 this year compared with 563 last year. So about 45 percent of the state's schools got the top two ratings this year, compared with about 55 percent last year.

And the report cards did judge a few more schools harshly this year: Besides the seven 'unacceptable' schools, 28 others were rated 'low' this year, compared with 14 last year.