Class Of 2025: Follow Students From 1st Grade To Graduation

Oregon’s goal for the Class of 2025 is approaching. So what’s a graduation rate anyway?

By Elizabeth Miller (OPB) and Rob Manning (OPB)
Sept. 14, 2023 1 p.m.

Lots of data factor into a school, district or state’s graduation rate. Here’s what a graduation rate counts — and what it doesn’t.

Graduation is two years away for the Class of 2025, but students in the group OPB has been following for the last decade are starting to think about it.

“It’s more of a… 50/50 chance where I feel like I’m ready and then I’m not,” Anais said.


“Right now, I’m on track to graduate,” said student Osvaldo at the end of sophomore year.

“I say ‘graduation,’ but then I don’t think about walking across the stage, like I haven’t thought about it yet — what it’s going to look like,” said Rayshawn back in May.

“It feels far away, still.”

Graduation rates have long been a critical metric for measuring high school success, but one number doesn’t tell the whole story. Educational leaders say the pathway from high school to what comes next should be stronger and broader. And some say that accountability efforts for schools should emphasize other, more inclusive ways to know whether kids are ready for adulthood.

Graduation rates not always the focus

Much like Oregon, the country’s graduation rate was low in the early 2000s, and had remained flat for years. It was around 73% in 2002, with Oregon close behind at 71%.

Johns Hopkins University researcher Bob Balfanz said that until the early 2000s, schools weren’t held to high standards for graduating their students.

That started to change with the federal No Child Left Behind act, passed in 2002, which was intended to hold all states accountable for the performance of their public schools. At the time, many states — including Oregon — tracked graduation rates based on how many students they could document had dropped out. NCLB and 2004 research on a “dropout crisis” in the nation’s schools changed that. And it’s when the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins started.

Balfanz is the center’s director.

“Once we recognized it, and people focused on it, it [graduation] became part of high school accountability,” he said.

In this 2017 file photo, students head to classes at Oregon's Forest Grove High School.

In this 2017 file photo, students head to classes at Oregon's Forest Grove High School.

Don Ryan / AP

In 2008, the U.S. Department of Education enacted rules requiring states to use a “cohort” graduation rate, which tracked students from the time they entered high school to document whether they earned diplomas. Using that new calculation, Oregon’s graduation rate was 66.2% for the Class of 2009.

Balfanz said that’s about the time governors, including Oregon’s, made graduation rates “a thing.”

Similar to Oregon’s 100% goal, several presidents and the Everyone Graduates Center have set graduation goals for the country: 90% by 2020. The United States got close to that goal with an 87% graduation rate nationwide that year. But along the over 20 years of the Everyone Graduates Center, Balfanz said his team learned that getting to high school graduation “can no longer be an endpoint for students.”

“It really benefits the whole community that every generation has a pathway to adult success,” he said.

The “very necessary foundation”

Technically speaking, a school or state’s cohort graduation rate is the percentage of students who start ninth grade and finish 12th grade in four years. If a student transfers to a school in Oregon from another state, they get added to the denominator — and become Oregon’s responsibility, even if that student might be short on credits or have very different courses on their transcript.

The denominator can also get smaller, but only if the state receives documentation that a student is no longer in an Oregon school.

Related: A closer look at Oregon’s decision to drop high school graduation ‘essential skill’ requirements

Regardless of the technical calculations of the rate, Balfanz said a high school diploma is a key to adult success.

“It’s still very hard, without a high school degree, to get that family-supporting wage for a stayed period of time,” he said. “You’ve accomplished what it takes to graduate high school, that’s an accomplishment in and of itself of early adolescence and you are now on that first rung so you have options for postsecondary training or schooling.”

Class of 2025 student Jacob got a job this past summer in his hometown of Molalla. Eventually, he wants to open his own car repair shop, and doesn’t see finishing high school as a necessary part of doing that.

“I’d rather just drop out, get my GED, and see where that takes me,” he said at the end of his sophomore year. “I’d rather just work the rest of my life really, that’s what I want to do, just work.”

Jacob’s dad Josh disagrees with him. He wants his son to “struggle through” high school, no matter how long it takes.

“It’s a determination, it shows a lot more things than he realizes — companies look at this stuff, even to own your own business [...] people come to your business, look at your background, and see what you’ve done,” Josh said.

“What he does now is going to impact that future.”

Grad requirements, calculations vary from state to state

Balfanz called graduation a “very necessary foundation” that proves not only students learned things like reading and math, but also that they can manage different coursework and “teacher personalities.”

“It is a combination of the knowledge you learn, but also how you learn to navigate both work and other people,” he said.

But different states have different requirements to get that diploma and graduate.

Oregon education officials will tell you that graduating with an Oregon diploma is “more challenging” than it is in other states.


“There is one state that has more challenging graduation requirements in the form of credit requirements and that’s Connecticut,” said Dan Farley, assistant superintendent of the office of research, assessment, data, accountability, and reporting at the Oregon Department of Education. Connecticut requires 25 credits to graduate.

Oregon is one of several states that requires 24 credits. Additionally, Oregon students must complete “personalized learning requirements” to get a diploma. Those include broad demonstrations that a student has thought about their future and career.

Oregon education officials say the different requirements for graduation, as well as different ways states calculate the number of potential graduates, leads state officials to caution against sizing Oregon up to other states.

“Comparing diplomas across states, I find to be an incredibly challenging problem,” Farley said.

For 20 years, that’s what the Everybody Graduates Center has been doing. The center’s latest report, from June 2023. It showed that while Oregon remains in the bottom half of states nationally, there has been significant improvement in the statewide graduation rate.

All states have to follow federal rules and submit their adjusted cohort graduation rate every year. But the U.S. Department of Education acknowledges that there is variation in how states come to their calculations.

Balfanz with the Everybody Graduates Center said some states even calculate two different graduation rates: a state rate to present publicly, and a separate rate that states report to the federal government.

“Even if the stories vary from state to state, we in Oregon still have a lot of work to do regardless of how we measure up to other states,” said Carla Gay, executive director of innovation and partnerships for the Gresham-Barlow School District and an advisory board member for Grad Partnership, a national organization.

At the same time, graduation rates are only one data point. And they often only tell a small part of a school, district, or state’s story, and don’t tell the story of any individual student.

Not the only way to measure student success

In the Gresham-Barlow School District, Carla Gay knows that the four-year graduation rate and the core credits students need to earn are important. But for her, what’s also important is making sure that students have access to electives and classes that interest, challenge and keep them engaged in school.

“The four year graduation rate,” Gay said, “I think it is a metric, it is not the metric.”

“While it is a sort of dipstick in our data to tell us how close or far we are to supporting students in their pathways to adult or to career success, it is not the metric and I think we’ve put way too much weight on it to be the metric,” she said.

She says student experiences should carry more weight, and school systems should prepare for flexibility in tracking student progress, including whether it takes a student four years, three years, or even five years to graduate. (Oregon does publish five-year graduation and completion rates, but they’re not often highlighted in how state leaders discuss graduation data.)

“Our system needs to better adapt to their timelines, especially since COVID, we’ve learned that timelines vary because students are ‘adulting’ much younger, many of them, and some of them are ‘adulting’ much later because they just are struggling to motivate,” she said.

“And we really need to have an adaptive set of metrics that reflects what our students are experiencing and then helps us support them.”

A school’s four-year graduation rate doesn’t include students who fall outside of the “traditional” model, like a student who dropped out and then re-engaged.

“Yet they [students who have left and returned] are often symbols of excellence and completion and perseverance and have overcome a lot of challenges both in their personal lives and in school,” she said.

To try to get more information from students about their educational experiences, Oregon has started administering the annual Student Educational Equity Development Survey to ask students about things like their sense of belonging and access to learning in schools.

“When we’re trying to figure out ways that we can make our educational systems better, centering student voice in that conversation is really critical because they are the ones who are navigating that system and the intended beneficiaries,” Farley said.

Farley added that grade point average is another measure of student success that may give some insight into how students might do in the future.

“There’s a strong body of research that shows that grade point average, or GPA is the best predictor of postsecondary outcomes when you’re looking at the community college and university space,” he said.

What’s missing

If graduation is the first step on the path to adulthood, there’s not a lot of data about the steps after that.

And Gay would argue there’s not enough focus on students who take a little longer to take that first step.

“We really need to be doing a five and a six and a seven and eight [year graduation rate] until they age out of our system at 21, so that we’re telling a much more nuanced story of the pathways that students take,” Gay said.

“In an ideal world, it wouldn’t just be until they age out at 21, but then what is their next step beyond their graduation … how are we measuring their postsecondary enrollment and telling their whole story?”

The state does have data that might offer some insight on how students fare after they leave high school through the Oregon Longitudinal Data Collaborative. The collaborative manages the Statewide Longitudinal Data System, a massive data warehouse that connects information from public schools, colleges and the state employment department.

“We have that opportunity now, and a data collection system in place that will allow for research into questions like that to be more and more feasible over the coming years,” he said.

Last year, the OLDC shared a report detailing where students entering high school in 2006-2007 ended up in 2019. According to the OLDC’s 2023 research agenda, work this year includes reporting on pathways from education to the workforce.

But the capacity to do more research is limited. Farley said it would take increasing staff, or a collaboration with higher education or other research institutions, to be able to do that work.

‘We do a lot of work in data collection, data validation and reporting,” Farley said. “We’re not always in a position to really start learning from the data that we have in our system.”

But it’s not just about the data. Both Balfanz and Gay argue that it’s critical that young people continue to get support even after they leave high school, to ensure their success in adult life.

If you have questions or story ideas for the Class of 2025, reach out to Elizabeth Miller at


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New governor, new goal: Is 100% high school graduation by 2025 still Oregon’s target?

John Kitzhaber, the governor who first announced that goal at his inaugural speech in January 2011, resigned from office in February 2015. Oregon’s new governor, Tina Kotek, announced a different graduation rate goal when she was running for office: to improve Oregon’s graduation rate to “90% for all student groups by 2027.” That’s 10% lower, two years later.