Brookings-Harbor schools continue to be below state averages and need improvement, according to new report cards released Thursday by the Oregon Department of Education.

Azalea Middle School and Brookings-Harbor High School showed improvement in all testing areas, but still trail behind state averages when compared with similar schools.

All three schools were rated level three, putting them between the bottom 15 to 44 percent of schools in the state, and raising questions about why Brookings schools continue to underperform.

"The growth ratings are high," said Brian Hodge, superintendent of the Brookings-Harbor School District. Growth ratings measure and rank the amount of improvement in test results. "We have above average growth at the middle and high school levels."

While test scores improved or stayed steady at most of the district's schools, the graduation rate continued to decline at BHHS. Only 69.7 percent of district students graduate or earn a GED within five years of starting high school. This is more than 10 percent less than the state average.

"We are working hard on that," said Larry Martindale, principal of BHHS. "Every community has a culture, and we need to get the community on board to understand how important it is to complete an education."

Martindale said he has been meeting with local stakeholders to help with that effort. He also said the school is doing a better job at helping students think about college through its Gear-Up program that helps first-generation college students prepare and apply to colleges.

The high school's freshman support team is also working to make sure freshmen are on track to graduation, according to Martindale, making sure they finish the year with at least six credits.

"The staff worked really hard to position ourselves to be at or higher than state averages," Martindale said. "We are on a mission to improve test scores and are working hard to make it happen. We don't just want to meet state averages; we want to exceed them."

The number of BHHS students meeting or exceeding standards in math, reading, writing and science at the high school improved by more than 10 percent from last year, but is still below state averages.

Azalea Middle School showed a similar situation, with test scores still below state averages but showing improvements.

Sheryl Lipski, principal of Azalea, said that new mathematics teaching methods being implemented this year will help improve math test scores and prepare students for the Smarter Balanced Common Core tests to be administered beginning in the 2014-2015 school year. Smarter Balanced is an assessment that tests students on national common core standards.

Kalmiopsis Elementary School showed decreases in the number of students with disabilities who met state standards, on which Principal Helen Chirinian said the school was focusing.

Chirinian said that, in the past, students with disabilities were pulled out of class to receive extra help, but this year the school is piloting a program to keep students in class and putting extra instructors in the classroom, so that for half the day the students have three instructors in the classroom.

Kalmiopsis is also looking at a variety of different mathematics curricula. It last replaced its math curriculum 12 years ago, according to Chirinian.

"We will adopt a math curriculum that is in line with the common core," Chirinian said. "We are using different curricula to see how they work."

Hodge said he expects achievement at all the schools to continue to improve, and that the district's data committee will be using data like this to continue to make adjustments.

Hodge said the staff continues to work hard at a time that more is being asked of them with the new evaluation system.

"Teachers have always worked hard, but how they're asked to work is changing," Hodge said. "The traditional teaching model is changing."

Gold Beach and Port Orford Schools

Both schools of the Central Curry School District, Riley Creek Elementary and Gold Beach High schools were rated above average, when compared to the state average and with similar schools.

Dennis Johnson took over as superintendent in July, and credits the above average ratings to his predecessor, Jeff Davis, and to the students, staff and parents.

"Even though we are a little above the state average, we're going to continue to work hard to raise the bar higher," Johnson said.

He said the high school implemented a modified block system this year which he hopes will increase student success. Also at the elementary school level, the district is working to identify literacy needs early among students.

Gold Beach High School has a five-year completion rate of 91.7 percent, 10 percent more than the state average. The school also was above state averages in all testing areas, including math, reading, writing and science.

Johnson said one of the more worrisome things is the large population of economically disadvantaged children who attend the district's two schools - 63 percent of Driftwood Elementary students and 57 percent of Gold Beach High School students.

"Curry County has been hit financially the last few years, but people are doing the best they can," Johnson said.

Having a smaller school can be beneficial, allowing teachers to collaborate more and improve connections and learning outcomes for students, Johnson said. He also said that teachers have a more personal connection with students, too.

Central Curry School District had 492 students in 2012-2013, while Brookings-Harbor School District had 1,558. The average kindergarten through third grade class size at Riley Creek Elementary was 24.8 students, while at Kalmiopsis it was 23.3 students.

Pacific High School, in the Port Orford-Langlois School District, was above the state average in all areas except mathematics. Its five-year high school completion rate is 86.7 percent.

Driftwood Elementary School, however, was rated below average, with lower math scores than the state average.

Why do Brookings schools underperform?

Larry Flick, dean of the College of Education at Oregon State University, said that one of the main reasons Brookings-Harbor schools underperform could be that around half of its students are economically disadvantaged.

"It's a national concern, the achievement gap," Flick said. "When economically disadvantaged students and certain minority groups are compared to averages, you see major gaps. That disparity is a national concern, and in Brookings you would look at economic disadvantage and how that affects achievement."

Flick also said that economic downturns tend to affect rural school districts more, because of their smaller economies and job base.

"Economic downturns disproportionately affect rural school districts," Flick said. "You see rural school districts performing lower because of economic problems."

While not putting all the blame on budget cutbacks that began in 2008, Hodge said it was hard to ignore the effect it had on student achievement and graduation rates.

"You can't get by the fact that in 2008 we had funding cuts and lower funding over a several-year period," Hodge said.

Hodge said not having a high school counselor for a few years most likely contributed to a declining graduation rate - with no one to ensure students were on track to graduation, it is likely that some children fell through the cracks, he said.

Also, with teachers being asked to do more with a new evaluation system, it can be difficult for them to adapt to new ways of doing things, Hodge said.

Test results also only show a snapshot of a student's performance on one day, Hodge said, and not necessarily how the student improved from the beginning of the year.

"(With the new evaluation system) instead of a percentage, parents and teachers will know which parts of the curriculum the child knows and which ones the child doesn't. It's much more specific," Hodge said.

Flick said broad standardized testing of students can be valuable, but more important is how the information is used. He also said that standardized tests are good at measuring some things but not others.

With budgets normalizing and new approaches being taken in the district from special education to curriculums, Hodge sees continued improvements.

"We're finally getting to the point where we are able to look at data instead of just reacting to local or state issues," Hodge said. "We aren't just reacting to everything, but we are planning."