Grading the graders

The new state public school "report cards" issued last week range from encouraging to cause for concern — much like individual student report cards do. But it's important to recognize that the lowest scores, when viewed in isolation, don't paint a complete picture.

It's no surprise that the schools ranked as "failing" under the state evaluation are alternative high schools designed to serve students who need extra help to succeed and who don't function well in a traditional high school environment. Not only that, but many of those students start out with tremendous disadvantages.

Central Medford High School scored a 1 on the state grading scale, meaning its results fell into the bottom 5 percent of scores statewide. In contrast, South Medford High School received a grade of 4, meaning it was between 44 percent and 90 percent.

Results were similar for alternative high schools in other Southern Oregon districts.

The ratings reflect a variety of measurements, including teacher training, attendance and student scores on standardized tests of reading, writing, math and science.

But a look at the demographic profile of Central and South tells another story as well. At Central, 82 percent of students are economically disadvantaged, and 21 percent have some kind of disability. At South, 56 percent are economically disadvantaged and 8 percent have a disability.

Another point to keep in mind is that the state's evaluation system grades schools "on a curve," meaning the ratings are defined by where the school's scores fall relative to all scores statewide. There will always be schools scoring 1s and 2s even if all scores go up, because there will always be a bottom 5 percent.

So the emphasis going forward should be on improving scores over time, not necessarily shooting for unrealistically high marks from every student.

Alternative schools have been criticized as "dumping grounds" for students who can't make it in traditional schools. But the fact is that, if the alternative schools closed and students were forced back into a regular school environment, many would simply drop out altogether — not a satisfactory result.

Efforts to measure school performance — to deliver bang for the taxpayer's buck — and to set standards every student is expected to meet have been fraught with problems from the beginning. This latest evaluation system appears to be an improvement over previous systems because it recognizes demographic differences in student populations such as variations in economic circumstances and in English language abilities.

Of course, the ultimate goal for all high schools should be to help as many students earn diplomas as possible. Parents and district patrons should expect their schools to work hard toward that goal, with the understanding that a 100-percent success rate can never be accomplished.

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