Chelsea Mosher
MONICA LINDSEY thought her son Brad was doing well in the Portland schools. When he graduated from the seventh grade last year, his final report card was all A's and B's, and only one C. But during a parent-teacher conference, Lindsey learned that her son didn't meet the state standards. In fact, the teacher said, an assessment test showed he was only performing at a fifth-grade level.

"I was shocked," Lindsey said, who thought Brad was on target for entering college. "Parents need to know the grades their children are bringing home don't mean nothing."

What happened to Lindsey is not an isolated case. According to community activist Tony Hopson, many area students--especially ethnic minorities and those in low-income brackets--are given grades elevated far above their actual achievement levels. He believes teachers and district officials are passing such students without giving them an adequate education.

"It's a case of lower expectations," charged Hopson, director of Self Enhancement, Inc., a North Portland social service agency. Hopson pegs the blame for sub-standard performances not on the students, but on the schools themselves. Although the district once mandated a common curriculum in all schools, it changed this policy more than a decade ago to allow each school to adopt its own set of class offerings. Now, Hopson claimed, classes are actually easier in the district's low-income schools, allowing students to earn good grades for inferior work.

"It's a form of social promotion," said Hopson, referring to the practice of passing students regardless of how well they're learning. "They aren't learning what they need to know to function in the real world."

These disparities first came into focus after the Oregon Legislature passed the Oregon Education Act for the 21st Century in 1991. It required the state to set academic standards--"benchmarks"--for grades three through 10. In theory, students who meet or exceed the benchmarks are being properly educated; Students who fall below are not.

The state law also called for all districts to test their students to see how they are measuring up. These standardized tests revealed that many students being given good grades were not meeting the standards and, moreover, a disproportionate number of students below the benchmarks were enrolled in the district's low-income schools.

The results from last year's standardized tests further emphasized that disparities fall along racial lines. While 37 percent of white 10th graders failed to meet state benchmarks for reading last year, the figures were far higher for minorities--about 60 percent of Asian American and Native American, and roughly 80 percent of African American and Hispanic American 10th graders fell below the state reading standards.

Concerned that Portland Public Schools (PPS) wasn't closing the achievement gap fast enough, Hopson and a number of other community leaders formed an ad hoc group called The Education Crisis Team last year. It includes such longtime Portland activists as Ron Herndon of the Black United Front and Richard Luccetti of the Hispanic Parents Association.

Using data provided by PPS, the Crisis Team identified 14 schools--10 elementary and four middle schools--where 40 percent or more of the students were not meeting state standards. Every single one of these schools is located in economically depressed neighborhoods in North, Northeast and Southeast Portland. The worst offender is Whitaker Middle School in the Concordia neighborhood, along the outer reaches of NE Killingsworth. More than 75 percent of eighth grade students there failed to meet state math standards last year.

"The school board wouldn't tolerate these kinds of results on the west side of the Willamette River," said Hopson, referring to the geographic split between the historically richer and poorer sides of Portland. Significantly, more than 80 percent of students in Westside schools meet or exceed state standards.

Evelyn Brzezinski, head of the PPS's office of Research, Evaluation and Assessment, cautions against gleaning too much from the disparity between a student's grades and state test scores. Told about Brad Lindsey, the B-level student performing two years below his actual grade-level, Brzezinski conceded that such disparities were not unusual. She argued that it was possible Brad's teachers simply hadn't covered the material in the state-mandated tests.

"The tests can't cover everything a child has been taught," she said. "Maybe his teachers haven't matched their curriculums to the state standards."

Hopson rejects such arguments. "This is smoke and mirrors," said Hopson. "First they say everyone should meet state standards, then they come up with all these reasons why we shouldn't hold them responsible because our kids aren't meeting them."

Earlier this year, the Crisis Team presented PPS Superintendent Ben Canada with an eight-page "Emergency Plan" to improve the most troubled schools. The first proposal was a call for a standardized curriculum in all classrooms.

"All the fundamental courses should be the same, and the standards should be high," said Hopson.

Canada agreed the Crisis Team had legitimate complaints, and responded by spending much of the summer working with teams of advisors to prepare a "Strategic Plan" for eliminating the achievement gaps between schools. Just days before the start of the new school year, on August 28, an "Action Summary" to implement the plan was accepted by the PPS board. But, although the plan embraces several of the proposals put forward by the Crisis Team's plan, it fails to call for such sweeping reforms as a standardized curriculum.

"If they expect all the schools to be teaching the same thing in every grade every day, they can forget it," said Lew Fredrick, a PPS information officer. "We expect every school to meet state standards, but how they get there is up to each school. Some students are more prepared to learn than others, and the schools have to taken that into account."

Such talk has convinced the Crisis Team that PPS is not taking their concerns seriously. They have already disrupted school meetings and held a well-attended "Save Our Children" rally to press their concerns. Now the Crisis Team is considering calling for a one-day boycott of schools.

"We haven't set an exact date yet, but it will happen unless we see more movement from the district," Hopson promised.