PORTLAND – Nine of the city’s 16 public schools failed to meet federal performance standards in the 2011-12 school year, but school officials say those results don’t accurately reflect what’s happening in classrooms.

“Our schools are not doing worse this year than last year, but you wouldn’t know that from the way the federal lists are calculated,” said Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen earlier this month, when the results were released.

In Portland, Casco Bay, Deering and Portland high schools failed to meet the standards set by the federal No Child Left Behind law, as did the Hall, Lyseth, Presumpscot and Reiche elementary schools, and Lincoln and Lyman Moore middle schools.

One of the longstanding criticisms of No Child Left Behind is that schools can improve their test scores and still not meet the standards because the bar is raised each year.

For instance, more schools made some progress in meeting reading and math standards in the 2011-12 school year than in 2010-11, but the number of schools that made adequate progress under federal standards dropped considerably.

Statewide, only 184 of 608 public schools made adequate progress in 2011-12, down from 276 the previous year.

Maine schools are required each year to meet higher testing targets than the previous year to make “adequate yearly progress.”

For last year, the target for schools with grades 3 through 8 was 75 percent of students proficient in reading and 70 percent proficient in math.

For high schools, 78 percent of students had to be proficient in reading and 66 percent had to be proficient in math.

Mike McCarthy, principal of King Middle School in Portland, said he was proud that his school met the standards in both math and reading.

“Our teachers work hard; we don’t focus on the test,” he said. King’s interdisciplinary, project-based learning model is nationally known.

Only the Hall, Presumpscot and Reiche schools face ramifications for failing to meet the standards because they are the only Portland schools on the list that receive federal Title I funding, which is given to schools with a certain number of students from low-income backgrounds.

Those schools must work on improvement plans and must give students the option to transfer within the district.

Cynthia Loring, principal of the Presumpscot school, said last year was the first year her school has failed to make adequate yearly progress in any area. She doesn’t see that as a failure, but as an opportunity.

“It’s another tool that allows us to focus in on our strengths and weaknesses and make improvements,” she said.

Presumpscot failed in just one area: reading proficiency among students with disabilities.

Gail Cressey, the No Child Left Behind coordinator for Portland schools, said only a handful of students have transferred this year.

“We have school choice anyway, so if a parent wants to send their child to a school outside their district, they can, as long as transportation arrangements are made,” she said.

The annual No Child Left Behind results often frustrate educators, but the law’s impact in Maine is likely to change after this year.

Maine has received a waiver to continue using the 2010-11 targets for the 2012-13 school year, which will be the basis of next year’s status results. It’s likely to help schools meet progress standards, Cressey said.

More importantly, Maine has requested an additional waiver from the U.S. Department of Education to allow schools to set more realistic progress goals and base achievement on more than standardized test scores.

A decision on that waiver is expected in the coming months.

Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association, the union that represents teachers, said her organization supports the waiver.

“We need to be looking at the whole picture,” she said. “One test score is a puzzle piece.”

Cressey said the waiver, if granted, will take some pressure off schools.

“It will reset the targets for schools based on current performance,” she said. “Schools would still have to decrease the number of students who are not proficient, but the target would be attainable.”

Many education officials feel the No Child Left Behind targets have long been unrealistic. According to current Maine Department of Education estimates, no Maine school will reach 100 percent proficiency by 2014, the law’s original goal.

Cressey said Portland schools historically have been more likely to fail to meet standards, in part because No Child Left Behind sets targets for schools as a whole, and for specific demographic subgroups, including African American students, economically disadvantaged students and students with disabilities. If one subgroup fails, the entire school fails.

Subgroups are measured only if enough students fit into that specific category, Cressey said. Portland, for example, is likely to have many more economically disadvantaged students than Falmouth or Cape Elizabeth.

In the past, struggling schools have received additional funds as an incentive to improve. Riverton Elementary and East End Community schools received three-year school improvement grants of $3.4 million and $2.7 million, respectively, to turn around students’ performance.

Those changes included replacing half of the faculty. Last year, and again this year, those schools met the federal standards.

In more recent years, however, less federal money has been available to improve schools that fail to meet the standards.

 

Staff Writer Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

erussell@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @PPHEricRussell