Oregon Struggles to Move Stagnant HS Graduation Rate

Oregon’s Education Department has released their annual report on graduation rates in the state, and as the Oregonian’s Betsy Hammond reports, despite a strong push by public schools to increase the on-time graduation rate a few points higher each year, there was no real progress between 2011 and 2012. With only a 68% graduation rate, [...]

Oregon’s Education Department has released their annual report on graduation rates in the state, and as the Oregonian’s Betsy Hammond reports, despite a strong push by public schools to increase the on-time graduation rate a few points higher each year, there was no real progress between 2011 and 2012.

With only a 68% graduation rate, Oregon ranked fourth from the bottom in nationwide graduation rates in 2011. This shocking failure led the legislature and governor to create an initiative to improve graduation until it reached 100% by 2025. This means that new education methods will be applied to incoming kindergarten students now in order to achieve success by 2025.

The governor’s first step was to hire Rudy Crew, an experienced superintendent who was most recently the chief of New York City’s schools who became Oregon’s first Chief Education Officer. Crew has called for schools to go all-out to bring students up to grade level in reading, even if they are facing budget problems.

Schools with the worst graduation rates need to deploy technology in new ways and use summers and weekends to get all students reading at grade level, he said.

Budget problems are the chief culprit, said another Oregon official. Schools Chief Rob Saxton pointed out that helping the poorest students graduate isn’t free:

He chalked it up to a lack of money, which he said led districts to end programs such as summer school that helped struggling students.

“You put together programs you think are really strong, then the budget falls apart, and you have to cut it,” said Saxton, who was superintendent of Tigard-Tualatin schools until July. “It hurt kids.”

Oregon recently instituted a reading test that all graduating students must pass, and the class of 2012 was the first to take this test. But the state insists this wasn’t what prevented 9800 students statewide from graduating. Instead, other challenges in their lives kept them at failing levels in their regular classes. Minority status, poverty, lack of English as a first language and learning disabilities are among the factors holding these students back:

In Oregon’s class of 2012, less than 55 percent of African Americans, Native Americans and students learning English as a second language earned a diploma in four years, the state reported. Rates for all those groups fell from 2011.

Oregon’s special education students had some of the worst outcomes: Just 60 percent earned a regular or special education diploma in five years of high school.

The report counted only on-time graduation, that is, graduation in four years. But more time may be the solution for some students, to prevent them from being stuck in a low-skills pool of workers for life.

More students than ever who enrolled for a fifth year of high school managed to earn a diploma. In the class of 2011, nearly 1,900 students — 48 percent of those who stuck around for a fifth year — got a diploma from the additional effort. Persisting for a fifth year led to particularly large gains for limited-English students and Latinos.

Some schools, including in Oregon, are starting to tackle other life challenges that their students have, such as teenage mothers who need day care. When schools offer on-site day care, the infants’ mothers are more likely to complete high school and escape the cycle of poverty.

The report had bright spots, and many people will look to find out what’s going right in those schools. Portland’s Franklin High School had an 88% graduation rate for African-Americans, while another high school, Century High in Hillsboro, graduated 83% of its Latino students. Tulatin High School saw 83% of its special education students graduate with either regular or modified diplomas.

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