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Ore. Graduation Rates Nudge Upward - Barely

Oregon’s graduation rates nudged up ever-so-slightly last year, according to the latest numbers released Thursday by state education officials. OPB’s education reporter, Rob Manning, has looked into the numbers, and joined Morning Edition host Tim Manickam in the studio.  

Tim Manickam:  So - good news or bad news? Graduation rates are going up, but not by much. What should we make of these?  

Rob Manning: I think it’s hard to make the case that this is good news. The overall graduation rate barely moved - it’s 68.7 percent. That’s not even a half-percent increase from the year before, when it was 68.4 percent.  It’s disappointing to the state’s deputy superintendent, the head of the Oregon Department of Education, Rob Saxton.

Rob Saxton: I wanted to see that number be higher than 68 (percent), I would’ve liked to have seen it be at least 70. 

RM: Saxton is particularly dismayed because Oregon schools are at the bottom of a long, steep hill, when it comes to graduation rates. Short-term, Saxton says Oregon hoped for a five percentage point increase between now and the class of 2015. After that, under an agreement between Oregon and the federal government, graduation rates are supposed to climb 3 percentage points every year, culminating in a 90 percent graduation rate in 2021.   That all feels like a long way off, both in terms of time, and results.    

TM: Getting back to today’s numbers, is graduation basically flat across the board, or where are we seeing gains and losses anywhere?

RM: It’s not flat across the board.  There are some students who tend to have a harder time earning high school diplomas - students who come from a non-English speaking background, students receiving special education, and students from families in poverty. All three of those groups saw worse graduation rates than a year ago.  

On the bright side, graduation rates among some ethnic minorities improved. African American students graduated at a 10 percentage point higher rate than five years ago. For Hispanic students, it was 8 percent. But the rate for Native Americans has not improved.  

TM: Any particular schools stick out?  

RM: Some schools slid backwards. Two high schools in Beaverton fell five percentage points – Aloha from 73 percent to 68 percent and Southridge from 88 percent to 83 percent. This is just a sampling. Newberg High dropped 8 points – 78 percent to 70 percent. North Eugene High dropped nine points – 71 percent to 62 percent – with an even bigger drop for low-income students – 64 percent to 50 percent.  

But there are a number of success stories, too.  Portland Public Schools have a number of schools that made significant gains, like Franklin High, where the graduation rate is among the top tier schools in Oregon, at 85 percent. Rob Saxton rattled off a handful to me: Gladstone High School, and three in central Oregon – Madras High School, Bend High, and Mountain View High School .

TM: So are there secrets to why certain schools are improving and others are falling back?  

RM: Rob Saxton points to budget cuts and the increasing class sizes and shrinking school year as big reasons for schools not improving, and certainly Eugene had those problems. Beaverton, too. On the positive side, Saxton says he’s working on a list of successful schools, and why. He says in some cases, it’s specific instructional approaches. And, he says, sometimes it’s making really close connections with students.  

Saxton: That is, you come around the student and make sure you offer them all kinds of support from every different direction. Basically say to them, What do you need? We’re not going to allow you to fail.”

RM: On the bright side, he notes there’s more money going toward Oregon schools right now. Whether that’s going to be enough money for a sustained period to propel Oregon toward its near-perfect graduation standards is another question. 

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