Oregon’s high school graduation rate edged up slightly last year to the second highest in state history.
Last year nearly 38,000 students graduated in four years – a rate of 81.3%, according to data released Thursday by the Oregon Department of Education. This marked an increase from the prior year’s rate of 80.6%.
The state’s all-time highest rate was 82.6% in 2019-20.
These numbers indicate the state has gained ground from losses caused by remote learning at the start of the pandemic. But Oregon’s graduation rates remain low compared with nationwide averages.
The data shows subgroups of students, identified by their race, socioeconomic status and housing situation, improved across the board, with some hitting all-time highs.
Students in foster care, homeless students, students in special education, migrant students and English language learners all graduated at higher rates. Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students saw a substantial jump, increasing from 69.8% in 2020-21 to 74.6% in 2021-22. And American Indian or Alaska Native students reached an all-time high at 68.9%.
“Even though we’ve seen changes (and improvements), you can see that there are still differences in graduation rates,” Jon Wiens, director of accountability and reporting for the education department, said Tuesday in a webinar with journalists. “Many of these underserved groups still graduated at a rate lower than the state as a whole, which is why we still have more work to do.”
Mixed results among districts
Colt Gill, the outgoing director of the Oregon Department of Education, said work by individual districts, support from special statewide advocates for “affinity groups” – racially diverse students and LBGTQ students – and targeted state and federal funding are responsible for much of this year’s success for historically underserved students.
The funding includes Oregon’s Student Investment Account, which requires schools to focus on increasing academic outcomes by closing disparity gaps; Measure 98 funding, also known as the High School Graduation and College and Career Readiness Act of 2016, which, in part, supports ninth-grade coaches and career technical education programs; and federal COVID-19 relief funds.
Last year 93% of Oregon students who participated in career technical education courses graduated on time.
“The state has over the last (five years) really put up the message to school districts that the way we’re going to increase Oregon’s graduation rates is by closing graduation rate gaps, closing disparities between student groups,” Gill told the Capital Chronicle on Wednesday.
Though the statewide rates show positive trends, individual district data shows mixed results.
Salem-Keizer Public Schools saw an overall decrease in its four-year graduation rate – from nearly 81% in 2020-21 to 79.8% in 2021-22 – but had significant gains at individual schools. For example, McKay High School in northeast Salem increased from 80.8% to about 84%.
The graduation rate at Portland Public Schools, the largest K-12 district in the state, increased overall from about 84% to 85.7%.
While Oregon has some of the most rigorous graduation requirements in the country – requiring 24 credits to earn a diploma, among other things – it continues to fall in the bottom half of states for graduation rates, according to the National Center of Education Statistics and other rankings.
The latest available data from the center shows the national rate was 86% in 2018-19, 6 points above Oregon.
State officials said the 2022 graduation rates are a positive sign Oregon schools are recovering from COVID-19 setbacks. Graduation rates are only one indicator of student success, but they’re often used to gauge the health of an education system and the opportunities a school provides its students.
“Each graduate represents an individual and family success story, a point of pride for their community, and a stronger future for Oregon,” Gov. Tina Kotek wrote in a statement. “It will take focused leadership and increased accountability to continue our recovery and ensure that all of Oregon’s children are better served by our investments in K-12 schools.”
State data released Thursday also showed an increase in Oregon’s dropout rates, now referred to by state officials as “pushout rates.”
This number refers to students who left high school during the 2021-22 school year without a credential, such as a GED or diploma, and did not transfer to another school, or they completed the school year but did not return. This number does not count students who switched to homeschooling.
The dropout rate for 2021-22 was up to 4%, compared to 1.8% the year before. However, state officials said these numbers aren’t comparable.
The pandemic changed how schools reported enrollment, including the suspension of the 10-day dropout rule. In previous years, if a student was absent for 10 or more days, the student was removed from the active role.
That rule is now back in place. However, some students who would have been reported as pushouts in 2020-21 were not dropped and, instead, were reported in 2021-22. As a result, officials said the previous year’s numbers look deceptively low, and the new rate is deceptively high.
“More often, when a student leaves a school system before they complete, it’s because the school systems … have failed them and have really pushed them out,” Gill said. “We’re recognizing that it’s the system that’s the challenge. It’s not the students.”
Under Oregon law, a school district is still responsible for educating a student after expelling them.
“The school district can provide tutoring services (or) can provide other kinds of services to ensure they are able to maintain progress towards graduation,” he said. “It just can’t be in that setting where they might cause further harm to those around them.”
Gill expects Gov. Kotek’s proposed early literacy program to have positive, long-term impacts on statewide graduation rates.
“While this won’t help us see immediate gains … in the next year,” he said, “districts that have gone through early literacy reforms in Oregon, like McMinnville, Bethel and Tigard-Tualatin, … a decade later, (they’re beginning) to see real increases in graduation outcomes.”
Gill said it will be important for state officials and educators to stick to their plans.
“Oregon has a history where they will have a reform that will last two or three years, then that will be defunded in favor of a new reform that will last three to four years and then be defunded,” he said.
The state is following guidance and risk reports the Secretary of State put out last May, he said, further backing the state’s Student Success Act and High School Success Program.
“We need to stick with that reform and see it through,” Gill said.
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