PORTLAND &

Only 90 percent of Oregon teachers are considered "highly qualified" by the federal government, despite an ambitious statewide plan that aimed to hit the 100 percent by last June.

The Oregon Department of Education released the data Wednesday. Last year 91 percent of Oregon teachers met the highly qualified requirements.

Education officials chalked up the slight dip to a new data collection system that allowed the state to cross-check the courses to which each teacher had been assigned against the teacher's license records. In Ashland, 88.2 percent of teachers reached the "highly qualified" level.

In the past, the state had relied on individual school districts to report whether teachers had the proper licensing.

That may have caused some mistaken classifications, said Bev Pratt, an education specialist with the department of education.

"In past years, (districts) have looked at the license, and missed the piece that these people have to demonstrate subject matter knowledge," Pratt said.

For example, in Oregon, a teacher licensed in biology is permitted to teach a chemistry class, but for only 10 hours a week or fewer.

School districts may have rated such teachers as highly qualified. But the federal government would disagree, saying that such teachers had not demonstrated full knowledge of chemistry.

Similar problems have cropped up at the middle school level, where the numbers of highly qualified teachers are the lowest, Pratt said.

Some school officials said it's unfair that teachers with decades of classroom experience have to pass a state exam or complete more college coursework to prove they are worthy of the highly qualified standard.

"A licensed qualified teacher with years of experience who taught in California could move to Oregon and teach six classes," said Michelle Zundel, Ashland schools director of educational services. "Under the requirements, all of her classes might be counted as not being taught by a highly qualified teacher even though the kids might be thriving and doing a great job."

Oregon allows teachers to be employed in middle school with just a general teaching license, but the federal government requires middle school teachers to be certified in the subjects they teach.

To be rated as highly qualified, Oregon teachers need to have a bachelor's degree and a state license in good standing. They also have to show that they've "mastered" their topics, either by passing a test in the subject or majoring in it in college.

Schools that receive federal poverty aid money have to send letters notifying parents if a child's teacher doesn't meet the "highly qualified" guidelines.

The federal government's goal was that 100 percent of teachers would be certified as "highly qualified" by the 2005-2006 school year. But no state in the nation met that goal.

Now, all 50 states are under monitoring by the federal government. Some have lost federal funding, Pratt said. That hasn't happened in Oregon, but the state's improvement plan is due for a federal inspection in January.

To bring up the numbers of highly qualified teachers, Oregon has proposed more training at the university level, particularly for teachers interested in working in high poverty schools.

There's also been more emphasis on helping teachers to take distance learning courses so that they can update their licenses. And districts that have posted traditionally low numbers of highly qualified teachers are being more closely monitored by the state.

Still, the "highly qualified" requirement, part of the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind law, raises hackles among many teachers and principals, who call the 100 percent goal unrealistic.

They said Oregon licensing laws are stringent enough to ensure quality teachers, without the added federal oversight.

"I don't know how we are ever going to do it," said Dave Currie, principal of Grants Pass High School in Josephine County. "You do the best you can to attract the most highly qualified person, but those people are in demand. They can go where they want to go."

Rural schools have struggled with the requirements. They often have a handful of teachers, who must juggle several subjects.

In previous years, Oregon schools with high numbers of students who come from poor families have had trouble attracting and keeping highly qualified teachers.

But those numbers are climbing, and high-poverty schools now have highly qualified teachers in virtually equal numbers, according to the state data.

The data is not yet clear on whether the highly qualified label translates to better grades. Oregon has improved the percentage of highly qualified teachers by nearly 20 percent since 2003. But Oregon students haven't made any statistically significant progress on reading and math since then, according to the National Assessment of Education Progress test results.

Mail Tribune Staff Writer Paris Achen contributed to this report