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Schools brace for poor grades

• A third or more of area schools are likely to fail tough new U.S. standards

A week from today, state education officials will announce that perhaps 36 percent of Oregon's public schools and possibly an even higher proportion in Portland have failed to meet the tough standards under a far-reaching federal education law approved last year.

The announcement is likely to jolt tens of thousands of parents and students because many of the below-standards schools will be ones that state and local education leaders have heretofore judged to be exemplary.

And the announcement will start a federally imposed process that eventually will require some Oregon and Portland schools to allow their students to transfer to nearby schools, require the schools to provide free tutors and require them to employ outside consultants to improve their students' test scores.

Portland school district officials have been preparing for next week's announcement for months. They know how jarring the results are likely to be to parents.

'My first reaction is, 'Wow,' ' Portland school board Co-Chairman Lolenzo Poe said of the expected number of Portland schools not meeting the standard.

But Poe and other school district leaders said the numbers are more about new and some say unrealistic demands of the law than they are about the quality of schools.

'I think parents, after they get past the 'Wow' aspect, (will see) there's something about how we're defining (not meeting standards) as much as what might be occurring in the school itself,' Poe said.

The announcement will come after months of wrangling between federal education officials and the Oregon Education Department and every other state education department, for that matter.

Mostly, they've been debating how to implement the law's stringent student achievement standards and therefore how to define the schools not meeting those standards.

The negotiations have sometimes eased the standards. The results are still dramatic.

In a preliminary test of data in California last week, 70 percent of the state's schools were judged to have not met the standards.

In Charlotte, N.C., two weeks ago, 62 percent of the city's schools didn't meet the standards.

Oregon education officials did a test run of the data two weeks ago and found that roughly 36 percent of the state's 1,200 or so schools did not meet the standards, according to Gene Evans, a spokesman for the state Education Department. The final numbers to be released next week are expected to be very close to those numbers.

How much progress?

Many schools not meeting the standards were tripped up by one of the most controversial and one of the most praised provisions of the new law.

The law requires that a school make 'adequate yearly progress' toward getting all of its students proficient in their learning as measured by test scores by the 2013-14 school year.

But the law also requires that various subgroups of students minority students, students learning English as a second language, students from poor families each make consistent progress when those groups are measured by themselves.

Advocates for those students praise the law for demanding more accountability from schools for their learning, which is often far behind the learning of their white, middle-class peers.

But education leaders have criticized the provision as unrealistically demanding. They say it mislabels good schools as not doing well. A school can have five of six subgroups of students making adequate progress, for example, and have its students as a whole making progress, but still be labeled as not meeting the standard because one group didn't make adequate progress.

'The weird part is, you're going to have 'exceptional' schools on the (Oregon) state report card É that failed' to meet the standards, Evans said.

Sanctions kick in

For schools in middle- and upper middle-class neighborhoods schools that don't qualify to receive special federal money to help them educate poor children the designation brings no real sanctions other than the unhappy designation.

But for schools in poorer neighborhoods that do receive the special federal funds 53 of the Portland district's 92 traditional schools receive the funds not meeting the standards can bring significant sanctions.

Two straight years of not meeting the standards means that students must be allowed to transfer to another nearby district school, with the district paying transportation costs. (School officials, meanwhile, are required to develop a school improvement plan.) Three years of not meeting the standards means the school must provide tutors or remedial classes free to students who want them. More dire sanctions come with four or five years of not meeting standards.

State officials early last month warned four Portland district schools Roosevelt, Jefferson, and Marshall high schools and Whitaker Middle School that they've failed to meet the standards. Because the schools also had failed to meet standards under previous federal programs, all four must deal with some sanctions this fall.

Students at Roosevelt, for instance, will for the second straight year be eligible to transfer to nearby schools. They'll be eligible for free tutoring or remedial classes for the first time.

Roosevelt Principal Andrew Kelly praised the law's aim of improving education for all children. 'We already, as a school community, know our kids aren't where we want our kids to be,' he said.

But he said the law's sanctions might not have the intended effect: Allowing a Roosevelt student just learning English to transfer to Grant High School won't mean he'll learn any better, he said.

'We're going to improve there's no doubt in my mind,' Kelly said. Roosevelt student test scores improved significantly last year from the year before, he noted, but 'we've got to have a bigger conversation about what's reasonable.'

Two variables in every state's plan will end up being very important in how that state's schools are judged.

One is how big a subgroup of students in a school must be for the law's standards to apply. Oregon's federally approved plan will effectively mean that if there are fewer than eight or nine students in a subgroup, the law's requirements of adequate progress probably won't apply to that subgroup.

The other important variable is the state plan's requirements of student proficiency progress over the 12 years. The law referred to consistent progress over the 12 years, but federal officials in the end approved state plans that included progress in two-year or three-year spurts in essence allowing slower progress at the beginning of the 12 years and more progress at the end.

Oregon's approved plan, for example, requires schools to get 40 percent of their student groups to 'proficiency' this year and next year, and 50 percent and 60 percent to proficiency during the next six years. Not until its last four years 2011 through 2014 does the plan require that 70 percent, then 80 percent, then 90 percent, then all students reach proficiency.

Some have suggested that states proposed such plans to put off the difficult task of getting most of their students to proficiency as long as possible and to put it off for several years during which changes might be made to the law.

'You can characterize this as 'gaming' the system,' said David Shreve, an education policy expert at the National Conference of State Legislatures. 'But in my opinion, it's a rational response to very unrealistic expectations.'