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Oregon Graduation Rates Improving, But Still Need Work

Rob Manning/OPB

Oregon’s graduation rates ticked up last year but they still show that nearly three in ten high school seniors fail to earn diplomas in four years.

This year’s 72 percent graduation rate is up from 68.7 percent in 2013 - when Oregon was at the bottom nationally.

OPB education reporter Rob Manning answers some questions about the numbers.

Search for your high school’s graduation rate

There’s been a slight improvement in graduation rates but Oregon does not compare well with the rest of the country.   What has reaction been to the new numbers?  

As you might expect everyone would rather hear that the numbers have gone up rather than that they went down but there is not nearly enough improvement — 72 percent is still far too low a graduation rate.  
Also, there are changes in the calculations responsible for the difference: The state now counts modified diplomas — offered to students with disabilities — as graduate numbers, which they didn’t before.  But educators defend that move, saying that other states treat these types of diplomas — which have similar credits and some differences in testing requirements - as graduation figures.
The state also now includes as graduates students who have earned a high school diploma, but are staying in school, often to get additional credits. Without those two changes, the grad rate basically stayed flat, or even declined a tiny bit.

Of course, graduation is not a state effort - it’s very local, from school district to school district, high school to high school. How are  Oregon’s bigger school systems performing?

Beaverton’s graduation rate went up two points from a year ago, to just under 80 percent. Salem-Keizer’s rate is about the same as it was a year ago, around 72 percent.    

Portland is the biggest school district in the state and its graduation rate is tracking close to the state as a whole. But leaders there point out that the rate has actually improved a great deal in the last four or five years. It was 53 percent back then, now it’s about 70 percent.  

What’s behind some of these numbers? What’s helping schools improve - and what’s holding them back?   

Let’s stick with Portland for a second and look at Madison and Roosevelt, two high schools that have struggled over the years.  

Madison’s graduation rate rose from 62 percent to 75 percent, a 13-point gain in just a year. Superintendent Carole Smith says there’s a new scholars program there that students and teachers are excited about. There’s also more hands-on learning going on.

On the other side, Roosevelt plummeted from around a 62 percent graduation rate to 53 percent. On that, Carole Smith says that you have to get the students through who show up at your door.  There are some students who showed up at Roosevelt a couple years into high school from somewhere else, where perhaps  they hadn’t gotten the credits that they needed. Getting students to finish high school when they’re behind at the end of 9th grade is really difficult.  How many credits students have early on is something a lot of principals watch.  You need to get those kids caught up because it’s hard to get through otherwise. 

Oregon has a goal of 100 percent high school completion by 2025. Are there schools that are getting close?   

There are the elite high schools in Oregon that have 90 percent graduation rates. But there are also a lot of schools that are experiencing plateaus. Year after year they make gains but they get to around 80 percent and it’s really hard to move farther than that. Ron Wilkinson, superintendent in Bend-La Pine, for example, said he might have to look at the strategies his district is employing:  Are there things that have gotten us this far that  now we have to change to get us to break through that ceiling?

Achievement gaps, based on ethnicity, income level, and race -  are alive and well in Oregon. What do you see with these achievement gaps when it comes to graduation?

The schools that are making the best improvements over time are making them because they are changing things to help students of color and students from poverty. This is happening in Portland and North Clackamas is seeing great improvements when it comes to its high school students of color and students from low-income backgrounds. There are still gaps – big ones –looking across the state. But when you look at where the improvements are being made, they’re being made with those students who are historically on the low end of those achievement gaps.


Find Your School: Oregon Graduation Rates 2013-2014