More than 90% of Oregon's elementary schools made federal benchmarks both this year, and last year. That means they're keeping up with the steadily rising demands of the federal No Child Left Behind law. Perhaps more impressive, though is that one in six of Oregon's high schools and nearly one-quarter of Oregon's middle schools moved from not meeting the benchmark a year ago, to meeting it, this time.
Susan Castillo is the state's superintendent of public instruction.
Susan Castillo: “It is really wonderful to see that starting to happen in the middle schools and high schools, some improvement there. Things were starting to flatten out at the middle school and high school level.”
Castillo says to know exactly what's working, you have to look at each individual school
The Gresham-Barlow school district saw three middle schools meet benchmarks, after years of falling short. One of them is Dexter McCarty Middle School.
McCarty Principal Tim Tutty says improvement came thanks in part to a no-nonsense, academic culture.
Tim Tutty: “Low performance is not acceptable. Failure is not acceptable. Every child can learn, every child can become proficient. With that premise, we've moved forward over the last three years, we've been on this mission since 2004.”
The federal No Child Left Behind law requires schools get all sub-groups of students to meet benchmarks. Jon Gabriel is an Upper level math instructor. He says a new approach with special needs' kids paid off.
Jon Gabriel: “We did some structuring differences with our special ed kids last year, and some clustering, working with them, co-teaching, maybe that made some difference. They made AYP for the first time, ever.”
One of the middle school's other issues was with math. But this past year, grades jumped. According to McCarty's internal numbers, 10% more sixth graders were at grade level this year, than a year ago.
Critics of high-stakes testing often worry that kids wind up getting superficial instruction that's tailored to the test. But sixth-grade teacher Amy Shannon says McCarty's math approach went deeper — instead requiring students to see behind the equations.
Amy Shannon: “They're doing things like being able to explain it, and justify why it works, and not just that it works. It's a very verbal kind of math program, where you have to read and write a lot about math, and not just do the problems.”
But that's not to say teachers like Amy Shannon don't concern themselves with tests. She says she gives kids test-taking tips. And she says the whole staff gets excited.
Amy Shannon: “I think a lot of teachers try to say, 'Ah, I don't care about the test, testing doesn't matter.' But then when you get the test, you're like, 'How did my kids do?' Because you really do kind of want to know.”
McCarty teachers say that a lot of the credit goes to how students responded to some incentives, as well. Math instructor Jon Gabriel says they bought into the idea of “academic all-stars.” It combines an honor roll with test results.
Jon Gabriel: “That is one of the things I know kids are aware of. It's a measureable, tangible thing that they can look at, and it's posted for the kids that are on there, on the academic all-stars.”
For kids who aren't motivated by the carrot of the honor roll, there's the stick. Math lab is a required extra class for students who are below benchmark in math. What they wind up missing is an elective class.
Some studies have shown that schools have cut back on arts' classes, to focus on tested subjects, like math. But principal Tim Tutty says that's not the effect he saw when he warned kids last year that math lab was coming this fall. .
He says they worked to avoid it.
Tim Tutty: “Once they meet their grade-level performance, then they can go back in their elective class. Now, that alone, just when we announced that last year, caused kids to take the kids seriously. One of the problems we've had, and I know it's controversial, is it's not about the test, it's about proficiency at that level.”
Teachers also credit the years of work done in elementary school, before the kids arrive at McCarty. The work at McCarty doesn't have the same kind of threats hanging over it that other schools have, because it doesn't receive federal money.
For high-poverty schools that do get federal money, low test scores can mean transfering student, or even closing down. But administrators will tell you that the scores are just one gauge of how students are doing, though it's the most public.
With No Child Left Behind up for renewal this year, it's a gauge that could change, before the next set of test scores comes out next fall.