Oregon's Graduation Rate Improves, But Achievement Gap Persists

By Rob Manning (OPB)
Portland, Ore. Jan. 24, 2019 4 p.m.

Oregon high schools bumped up their graduation rates last spring, to an average of 78.7 percent statewide. That's a two percentage point gain over the state's 76.7 percent rate from a year ago. The director of the state's education agency, Colt Gill, sees the report demonstrating steady improvement over nearly a decade when it comes to helping students complete high school.

“So this marks yet another increase — so we have year-after-year increases for the last nine years, really,” said Gill.


Depending on what time frame you look at, it’s possible to see stronger improvement from students of color and low-income students, than for the state as a whole.

“So we are beginning to see a close in those gaps,” noted Gill, the director of the Oregon Department of Education.

The gaps may be smaller, but they remain. African-American students graduate at a rate 10 points below Oregon’s average. For Native American students, it’s 13 points lower. Latino students are within four points of the state average. And low-income students, regardless of ethnicity, graduate at a rate six points below the state average.

But in a state as large and diverse as Oregon, the story of graduation rates varies wildly from region to region and school to school.

Promising, But Complicated At Madras High

OPB visited Madras High School last spring, as it focused on getting more students to graduation.

“It’s all about graduation,” principal HD Weddel told OPB last year.

Related: Madras High's 'All About Graduation' Focus Pays Off

That focus continues to pay off. Madras High’s new rates for last spring show another year of double-digit improvement — a meteoric trend of more than 30 percentage points since 2015. That was driven, in part, by the even stronger improvement among its Native American students.

Native American students at Madras High achieved a nearly 81 percent graduation rate — a level well above the state average.

But the numbers are complicated. Madras High’s strong numbers are arguably inflated by an exodus of dozens of Native American students in the class of 2018 who left Madras High for the nearby alternative high school. The Native American grad rate at that school, Bridges, last spring was just 35.1 percent.

Those two Madras high schools are not especially large schools, compared with those in the Willamette Valley, but they had the largest Native American senior classes of any Oregon district — nearly as many as were in the senior classes across Oregon’s three largest districts combined (Portland Public Schools, Salem-Keizer and Beaverton). The two Madras programs were also slightly better at graduating Native American students (59.5 percent), than the average of the state’s largest districts (55 percent).

State officials are hoping for further improvements at nine districts where they're implementing a Tribal Attendance Pilot Project in conjunction with local tribes. It's aimed at using culturally-relevant approaches to reduce chronic absenteeism, seen as a primary driver of low achievement among Native American students.


Woodburn: Importance Of Learning English

The four small academies at Woodburn High School continue to set the bar for student groups that have historically struggled to graduate: Latino students, low-income students and students who don't speak English as their native language. Nearly every student in Woodburn’s class of 2018 was low-income, 85 percent of students are Latino, and three-quarters came in speaking languages other than English. Their graduation rate was well above the Oregon average, at 89 percent.

State officials and news organizations have been watching Woodburn for years, as its grad rates blew past the state average and stayed there, in part through a prolonged focus on language proficiency, including an emphasis on bilingual instruction. Woodburn found years ago what the state of Oregon is starting to emphasize: that English proficiency is key to graduation.

“Ensuring students can hold onto their native language and learn English is a really strong pathway to graduation — and shows that these bilingual students can really perform in Oregon,” said ODE director Colt Gill.

Related: Oregon Educators Prioritize Bilingual Education

Recent analyses of Oregon’s graduation rates underscore a remarkable trend: students who enter the school system needing help learning English — and get sufficient help before high school — are more likely to graduate than native English speakers. However, students who still need English support when they’re in high school are far less likely to graduate than either native fluent English speakers or students who became fluent in English at school.

At the state level, students who were still learning English in high school had a 56 percent graduation rate — 20 points below Oregon’s average. But students who had needed help at one point, but gained fluency before high school, had an 82.5 percent grad rate — three points higher than students who never needed English support.

Statewide, Oregon's English learner population is relatively small — about 9,000 students out of the Class of 2018’s 51,000 student total. In Woodburn, the majority of students had English support at some point, and the trend holds: Woodburn students who were native English speakers had an 88.9 percent grad rate. Students who needed English help in high school graduated less often — just 75 percent of the time. And their classmates who mastered English by high school? A 90.8 grad rate.

Portland Helps Stabilize African-American Grad Rate

Oregon’s graduation rate for African-American students jumped six points from 2014 to 2016, but it’s stayed relatively flat since then and is now at 68 percent.

Portland Public Schools has by far the most African-American students in Oregon, and its graduation rate improved significantly last year to 70.6 percent.

It was led, in part, by a rebound at Portland’s Jefferson High School. The city’s historic black high school achieved a grad rate of 88.2 percent — 10 points better than the state average for all students and 20 points above the average of African American students, statewide. It had been slightly higher than that in 2016, before dropping last year.

“We have an expectation that 100 percent of our students will find success in college-level course work," said Jefferson High principal Margaret Calvert. "This has become part of the ethic and the mindset of our teachers, staff and especially our students. We continue to build supports that get us closer, knowing that we have to reach every student.”

District administrators credited stability of leadership and program offerings at Jefferson for its increase — one of five PPS high schools to increase graduation rates for African American students by at least seven points, over 2017.

Related: Audit: Many Problems At PPS, Oregon Department Of Education

Offsetting the improvement in Portland are declines in other parts of the state. Eugene’s grad rate for African-American students fell 15 points to 63.3 percent in 2018. Salem-Keizer, the second largest district in the state, saw an eight percentage point drop in its African American graduation rate, to 51 percent. Centennial, in east Multnomah County, also saw a significant drop.

Some of the lowest graduation rates for African-American students were at alternative programs for struggling students, though the amount of students enrolled at those schools is relatively low.

The Oregon Department of Education is looking to drive improvement in the African American graduation rate through its African American/Black Student Success Plan, which it released in 2017. That effort was one of several ODE initiatives to receive mixed reviews from a recent state audit. Oregon's State Board of Education is planning a meeting next month to address the audit's findings, likely including further discussion of how ODE can help school districts graduate more students, particularly those from historically disadvantaged backgrounds.