Why Is Oregon's Graduation Rate So Low?

By Rob Manning (OPB)
Sept. 1, 2015 1 p.m.
Reynolds High School graduation at Memorial Coliseum, June 12, 2014

Reynolds High School graduation at Memorial Coliseum, June 12, 2014

Amelia Templeton / OPB

We talked with a wide-range of Oregonians - from a parent to the governor - to explore why the state's graduation rate is so low. The complicated answer is broken up in the following subtopics. 


Oregon's high school graduation rate is bad.

No, really bad.

In 2013, Oregon's graduation rate was the lowest of any state in the country, at 68.7 percent.  It did get a hair better in 2014.

"Oregon’s most recent graduation rate was 72 percent," noted Salam Noor, Oregon's deputy superintendent of public instruction. "This is better than it had been historically and we anticipate our national ranking will look better when this most recent data is factored in."

We don't have 2014 grad rates for the rest of the country yet, but if you assume all other state grad rates stayed flat from 2013 to 2014, Oregon's 72 percent rate would surpass only four states: Alaska, Georgia, Nevada and New Mexico.

Oregon's increase from 2013 to 2014 was driven by a change in definition of "who's a graduate." It now includes students who earn modified diplomas and students who stay in school after satisfying their graduation requirements, often to take discounted college classes.

But top officials in Oregon acknowledge that such tweaks aren't a solution.

"Oregon can do better, and we will do better," Gov. Kate Brown said.

In fact, Oregon has set a goal that by 2025, students will graduate high school at a 100 percent rate. To get there, school leaders need to know what's not working.

Related: OPB follows the Class of 2025 from first grade to graduation

OPB reached out to a diverse group of Oregonians with various connections to the state's schools to find out what they think the problems are.

A few big causes emerged.

Alan Sylvestre / OPB

Oregonians Don't Value Education

In spite of polls that tend to show public education rivals the economy on voters' list of priorities, Oregonians aren't translating those priorities into classroom spending.

"While we’ve just invested nearly $100 million in early childhood education and made a double-digit increase in state support for public schools, this comes after decades of under-investment," said Gov. Brown.

Salam Noor is Oregon's deputy superintendent of public instruction.

Salam Noor is Oregon's deputy superintendent of public instruction.

 Oregon Department of Education

"Resources matter and for decades we have under-invested in our schools and this impacts student opportunities and outcomes as schools are forced to cut programs, teachers, and services," said Noor, the state deputy superintendent of public instruction. "With the past few years, we have seen a reinvestment in our schools but it will take time for this investment to translate into high graduation rates."

Lew Frederick is a Democratic state representative from North Portland, and used to work at Portland Public Schools in communications, and before that, as a teacher.

He draws a direct line between funding cuts and students struggling to graduate.

"One example is 'drop out retrieval' programs," Frederick said. "There have been successful efforts to bring back kids who are floundering, and get them into a program they can stay engaged with. Those successful efforts were highly case managed, individualized. As we reduced the number of adults in the schools, those became impossible to maintain.

Frederick's sentiments are echoed by Hanna Vaandering, the president of the Oregon Education Association, the statewide teachers union.

"Missing most are those educators who are specifically trained to mentor and care for children at risk for dropping out," Vaandering said. "There are fewer specialists for children with learning disabilities, there are fewer counselors and mental health providers, and there are fewer college and career advisers."

Republican leaders in Salem are also pointing to lack of funding as a problem underlying Oregon's underachievement in schools. Bend Republican Tim Knopp is the vice-chair of the Senate Education Committee. He agrees funding is a problem. He blames Democrats.

"[Helping students graduate] will require better funding and making education a priority," Knopp said. "Democrats have failed to make our kids a priority and have dis-invested in education at all levels and the results have been disappointing."

Although Oregon's funding is below the national average, it's not at the very bottom, like the state's graduation rate. Oregon ranks 32nd in average per-student spending, according to Governing magazine.

Republican Tootie Smith served in the Oregon Legislature from 2001 to 2005, and has been a Clackamas County commissioner since 2012.

"While many point to lack of funding as the cause of low graduation rates, I disagree," Smith said.

"Education begins at home and the value parents place on it." Tootie Smith, Clackamas County commissioner.

"Education begins at home and the value parents place on it." Tootie Smith, Clackamas County commissioner.

Rob Manning / OPB

Problems Start Early

The Oregon Department of Education has found that students who weren't reading at grade level in 3rd grade in 2004 went on to graduate in 2013 only 53.5 percent of the time. Kids who were reading at that point? They graduated at a 77.1 percent rate. Below-benchmark readers are even less likely to graduate if they're African-American (45 percent), or Native American (35.6 percent).

The correlation isn't lost on Oregon Gov. Brown.

"My focus on early learning investments, especially in providing wraparound services and supports for children and families, will help close these gaps," Brown said. "So, too, will our investments in high-quality teaching and learning for every child focused on supporting effective school leaders and teachers in our schools and classrooms."

"In an increasingly diverse state, closing these gaps is central to boosting graduation rates and improving outcomes for all of our students," said Brown's deputy superintendent, Noor.


"More than 115,000 Oregon children are living in poverty — a rate higher than the national average — and nearly half (49 percent) qualify for free or reduced lunch," points out Vaandering, with the Oregon Education Association. "Poverty impacts learning in more ways than we can count, but one tangible impact is mobility.  When a child has to start, and re-start at a new school or in a new program, they can fall behind on their credits, making it difficult to graduate."

While childhood poverty is certainly a challenge in Oregon, the problem doesn't necessarily mean low graduation rates in other states. The Children's Defense Fund ranks Oregon 28th in child poverty. Mississippi is 50th, but graduates a greater share of its students (76 percent).

It's clear that Oregon's achievement gaps show up in the graduation rate in a big way. Oregon's African American graduation rate (57 percent), Native American rate (52 percent), and graduation rate for low-income students (60.4 percent) are among the two or three worst, nationally.

From a statistical standpoint, one of the biggest reasons Oregon's grad rate is in the national basement is its majority white student population. Oregon's 71 percent white graduation rate is lower than any other state — by at least six percentage points.

Thomas Lauderdale, bandleader of Pink Martini, says Oregon parents and community lack “empathy” for the challenges facing public schools.

Thomas Lauderdale, bandleader of Pink Martini, says Oregon parents and community lack “empathy” for the challenges facing public schools.

Greg Bond / OPB

Oregon Lacks A Culture Of Learning 

Commissioner Tootie Smith argues the problem with Oregon's graduation rate starts at home, at an early age, with parents who aren't doing their part to set children up to be successful.

"I’m a firm believer that education begins at home and the value parents place on it. As parents we teach values to our children. We start by reading to them at an early age – at birth – and continue throughout their preschool years," Smith said. "This interaction requires parents to turn off the TV, put away the electronics and skip adult entertainment in the evenings that causes separation from our children. These actions by us as parents teaches our children the value of reading and books, therefore learning."

But Smith said too often, this isn't happening.

Eliza Erhardt-Eisen is a former pediatrician, current school volunteer, and the mother of three children who attended Portland Public Schools. She said Oregon's graduation numbers have one major cause.

"Oregon culture ... where young folks come to retire ... and no one wants to work too hard or hold staff, parents or kids accountable," Erhardt-Eisen said. "Truly prioritizing education is not in the culture here."

Like Smith, Erhardt-Eisen said parents have the wrong attitude about school.

"They frequently take their kids out during the school year for vacations because it is cheaper and easier for the family," Erhardt-Eisen said.

Absenteeism can become a major problem in Oregon, as discovered by The Oregonian's Betsy Hammond last year in her "Empty Desks" series, and before that in research from ECONorthwest. The 2012 ECONorthwest study found lower attendance rates led to lower achievement. Oregon's Quality Education Commission has found that 10th graders who attend school regularly are 172 percent more likely to graduate than those who don't.

But Erhardt-Eisen said teachers are part of the cultural problem, as well — often lacking the necessary work ethic and professionalism the job requires. She compared her experience in Portland with the schools in Nashville, Tennessee (a state that graduates 86 percent of students).

"Teachers in Nashville Public Schools worked a longer school year, taught 45 minutes longer per day, had 6 report cards (vs 4 here) per year, and a lot of classwork came home weekly in elem school so I knew what my child was learning," Erhardt-Eisen said. "My youngest had 2 years at (her Portland elementary school) where almost no writing and very few assessments came home the entire year. We call those her 'lost years.'"

Thomas Lauderdale is the bandmaster of international touring band, Pink Martini. He's also a graduate and former student body president of Portland's Grant High School. He laments the teaching profession - but blames high turnover in a very demanding profession.

"At a certain point, teachers throw up their hands - requirements, incredible pressure, a classroom of 30 people who learn in different ways - it's staggeringly overwhelming," Lauderdale said.

The National Council on Teacher Quality lists Oregon among the bottom 12 states for its teacher policies, including the lowest possible grade for "exiting ineffective teachers." Oregon does earn an average rating for "retaining effective teachers."

However, Lauderdale says education shortcomings are more a result of Oregon parents and community members who "expect something for nothing" and lack "empathy" for the challenges facing public schools.

One consequence of Oregon's below-average funding is that the school year tends to be shorter than in other parts of the country. Portland school board member Steve Buel said that delivers a message to school communities.

"The short school year in Oregon seems to suggest it is OK for students to not take school seriously," Buel said.

“Not everyone wants to go to college, not everyone can afford to go to college." Special education teacher Brett Bigham, 2014 Oregon Teacher of the Year.

“Not everyone wants to go to college, not everyone can afford to go to college." Special education teacher Brett Bigham, 2014 Oregon Teacher of the Year.

Sergio Cisneros / OPB

School Is Boring

Students get turned off by school for other reasons.

Pink Martini bandleader Lauderdale said "for average students, there's so few compelling reasons to stay in school."

Lauderdale said "if there isn't something that someone totally loves, and it's just a bunch of drudgery..." then students will tune out.

Lauderdale is accustomed to figuring out ways to keep audiences coming back to experience what he does as a musician. He says the challenge is not that different from how teachers and school leaders should approach students.

"When I think about putting shows together for the band, if I want to attract audiences to our shows, I have to think about making these shows matter - bringing in guests, things are coming and going," Lauderdale said. "In the same way, schools should be a place 'not to be missed'."

Several respondents said there was too much attention on standardized tests and their results, and too little focus on the "joy of learning" at every grade level. Some found the narrowing of the curriculum took the place of programs that were more relevant to what students wanted to do in life.

Heather Ficht

Heather Ficht

Courtesy of Worksystems, Inc

Heather Ficht directs youth programs at Worksystems, Inc. — a non-profit aimed at improving the Portland-area workforce. Ficht said students want what they're learning to matter.

"There is a disconnect between what happens in school and what happens in the world outside school," Ficht said. "Context matters – if we can do a better job of connecting classroom learning to learning outside the classroom, it makes a difference."

Brett Bigham was Oregon's Teacher of the Year in 2014, and has spent years working with students with special needs. He agreed that Oregon schools aren't providing the kinds of programs that appeal to all students.

"This elitist view that only a college bound graduate is a success story is damaging our education system," Bigham said. "Not everyone wants to go to college, not everyone can afford to go to college. In the old days, these youth would have been apprentices and interns, learning skills that would lead to successful employment."

Bend-area Republican Tim Knopp also sees an education system that doesn't meet students where they are.

Knopp said what's needed is "more individualized instruction and more choices for our students in their education to keep them in school and help them graduate."

His solution? "More charter schools."

Buel, the Portland school board member, said student disengagement starts long before students drop out of high school. He said middle schools need improvement.

"Oregon has some of the worst middle schools in terms of engaging activities for middle grade students in the country," Buel argued. "Athletics, music, and other activities are very scarce, hence kids get turned off in middle school and this carries over into high school."

Not Every Graduation Rate Is Created Equal

Oregon officials acknowledge that graduating only 7 in 10 students is unacceptable. But they also said comparing across state lines is problematic. In recent years, the federal government has convinced all states to calculate graduation rates the same way: by tracking 9th graders through 12th grade.

"I do think our lower ranking is in part due to the variability that still exists between states in terms of how graduation rates are calculated," said Noor. "Despite federal rules trying to better align how these rates are calculated, there is still a fair amount of variability from state to state. Oregon’s calculations are conservative relative to many states and this has an impact on how we stack up in national comparisons"

NPR's Education Team looked at graduation rates and also concluded that not all diplomas — or graduation rates — are created equal. But Oregon's is a lot lower than anyone wants it. And judging by the responses OPB received, improving it involves confronting a lot of problems — from funding to achievement gaps to the culture around learning in the state.