Oregon graduation rate remains flat for COVID-impacted Class of 2023

By Natalie Pate (OPB)
Jan. 25, 2024 2 p.m.

Last spring’s graduates were just starting high school when the COVID-19 pandemic started. New data offers us a glimpse into how the last few years have impacted them.

Students who finished high school last year were the first graduates to have experienced COVID-19 their entire high school career. The Class of 2023 were freshmen when the pandemic hit in the spring of 2020. Now, we’re seeing how the last few years have impacted them.

Salem-Keizer Public Schools students from the Class of 2023 celebrate at a graduation ceremony. This class was just starting high school when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit.

Salem-Keizer Public Schools students from the Class of 2023 celebrate at a graduation ceremony. This class was just starting high school when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit.

Courtesy of Salem-Keizer Public Schools


More than four out of every five students in the Class of 2023 graduated on time last year, tying with the class before them at 81.3%, according to data released Thursday by the Oregon Department of Education.

This is the second-highest graduation rate ever recorded in the state, a marked gain from nearly a decade ago between 2013-14 — the year the state changed how it calculated graduation rates — when more than a quarter of Oregon students weren’t graduating in four years.

“These 37,700 graduates overcame historic challenges to earn their diplomas,” Charlene Williams, director of the state education agency, said of the 2023 students. “Each diploma represents an inspiring step forward for a student, their loved ones, and their community.”

Looking at the state’s three largest districts, Beaverton had the highest overall graduation rate at about 89%, followed by 84.5% in Portland Public Schools and 79% in Salem-Keizer.

Williams said the learning through COVID — from school lockdowns, remote and hybrid learning, and the return to a new normal — meant needing to have “impressive grit and resourcefulness.”

These students, she said, “worked their way through the jarring and isolating impacts of the pandemic” to reach this point.

“We need to maintain high expectations and provide high levels of support that will lead to academic excellence for all of our students,” she added.

Salem-Keizer Public Schools students from the Class of 2023 celebrate at a graduation ceremony. This class was just starting high school when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit.

Salem-Keizer Public Schools students from the Class of 2023 celebrate at a graduation ceremony. This class was just starting high school when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit.

Courtesy of Salem-Keizer Public Schools

While last year’s graduation rate held steady with the year prior, there are concerns that these students did so with more help and maybe lower expectations than previous Oregon graduates.

Over the last few years, Oregon education officials modified certain requirements in light of the challenges presented by COVID-19. For part of the pandemic, Oregon schools no longer had to administer standardized tests or track attendance as rigorously, leading to uncertainty in how often students were showing up and what they were learning. Educators have said students need more emotional and academic support than before the pandemic, leading some teachers to change priorities, modify lesson plans or increase flexibility in ways they hadn’t before.

Graduation and completion rates — whether we’re talking about students who take four or five years to earn their diploma, or who earned a GED or modified diploma — are all just a snapshot and temperature check of the state’s K-12 system. But they are important.

Oregon research shows not graduating leads to higher unemployment, lower incomes, poorer health, higher incarceration rates and more reliance on social services. Society as a whole feels those impacts, in part because it costs Oregonians hundreds of millions of dollars every year.

“I am never satisfied when it comes to our kids. We will continue working hard to improve results in the coming school years,” Gov. Tina Kotek said in a statement this week, adding that she hopes to see lawmakers support more initiatives, such as summer learning investments, in the upcoming legislative session. “Still, it’s important that we are seeing some positive results in key areas where the state has been targeting resources.”

The value of an Oregon diploma as requirements shift


It was common across the country that students who graduated in 2020 had the highest graduation rates in recent records as states adjusted to the pandemic. The same was true for Oregon, with an all-time high of 82.6% of seniors graduating that year.

When critics voiced concerns over relaxed attendance expectations and watered-down requirements, education leaders at the time emphasized that those graduates had 12 years of learning that went into their diplomas — not just the final stretch of senior year. Still, many were concerned the modifications lowered the bar for Oregon students, a concern that continues today.

To earn a diploma in Oregon, students must earn 24 credits, complete personalized learning requirements and be proficient in the state’s nine “Essential Skills,” in addition to any district-specific requirements.

The nine Essential Skills include whether a student can write, apply math and use technology in a variety of ways. They also seek to measure if students can think critically, listen and work well with others, and engage meaningfully in their communities.

These requirements are all still in place, but the state no longer requires high school students to prove proficiency in those nine Essential Skills through a standardized test or similar assessment in order to graduate.

In 2020, and continuing through the 2027-28 school year, the State Board of Education suspended that requirement. State officials argue other states are taking similar action and that by doing so, they’re eliminating a redundant test that left room for bias and wasn’t accomplishing its intended purpose anyway.

But ODE says the expectation that students have those skills remains, now assessed in the classroom by educators.

Williams doubled down on this, saying Oregon has highly qualified and educated professionals and more rigorous standards than other states. She also said the state is using increasingly rigorous standards in each content area. With all this in mind, she argues there needs to be a more balanced conversation when we look at factors such as graduation rates, individual grades and GPAs to predict how successful a young person will be after finishing high school.

“Assessments are a huge and important part of our work,” she said, “... but it’s not the only story. We cannot completely dismiss the work that is happening day to day with our professionals, our leaders, who are working hard and diligently with and for our students.”

Student groups see a mixed bag of gains and losses

Data released by ODE this week show some notable gains in individual student groups and some noted drops for others.

Former English Learners — students who successfully completed English learner programs prior to entering high school — graduated at 87.6%, six percentage points higher than the statewide average and an all-time high for those students.

Meanwhile, special education students and students experiencing homelessness graduated at record highs, coming in at 69% and 60% respectively.

Multiracial and Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander students saw increases, while Asian students saw no change in their graduation rates. But Indigenous, Black and Latino students all had minor declines in the last year, and all are still below the statewide average. Nonbinary and female-identifying students also saw declines.

Additionally, students in foster care saw a slightly larger drop and still have one of the lowest percentages out of any student group, with less than half graduating on time. Another group in need of more support is students with experience in incarceration or detention, only about a third of whom graduated on time.

Williams said the reasons for these disparities are likely easier to isolate at the district level. But she agreed the state plays a role, especially when reviewing things such as Student Investment Account funding so the state knows what inequities individual schools and districts need to address.

“We’re able to come alongside districts to see what strategies are working or not working when it comes to supporting our students,” she said, “and always staying open, of course, for the success stories.”

The state’s current and past graduation reports are available here.