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Graduation rate data focuses attention on equity in education

The Oregon high school graduation rate continues its crawl upward, climbing 1 percentage point to 74.8 percent for the class of 2016. That rate, however, still trails nearly every other state.

The Oregon Department of Education (ODE) on Thursday morning released graduation rate statistics for individual districts as well as the state. The rate showed improvement across all student groups and also some closing of the achievement gap between different groups of students.

“It shows us where we are beginning to head down the right track,” said state Education Innovation Officer Colt Gill. He cited investments in early learning and career and technical education and a focus on culturally responsive student plans. “But I think it also means we need to pick up the pace.”

Over the past three years, the gap between white student graduation and African-American student graduation has decreased 3.5 percentage points, and the gap between white students and Latino students has decreased 2.1 percentage points. Schools have also closed the gap between English speakers and students who had to learn English at some point during their school career.

But the gap between white students and Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders and Native Americans has shown little change. Nor has the gap closed between the haves and have-nots (the state term is “economically disadvantaged”), or between students in special education and everyone else.

“Closing the achievement gap is crucial to ensuring education equity in Oregon,” Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Salam Noor said in a news release. “Although many of the gaps remain large, it is good news for all Oregonians when the disparity in graduation rates decreases.”

In meetings around the state last year, Gill found that equity came up over and over again.

“One of the things we need to look at is the demographic makeup of the students who aren’t graduating,” Gill said. “Demographically, they don’t look like the students who are graduating and they don’t look like the state as a whole.”

The Chief Education Office released Thursday a report with 10 specific initiatives to increase Oregon’s graduation rates. Key among them is offering a culturally specific response to student education along with diversifying the workforce to look more like the communities they serve so that all students feel welcome and are supported in the ways they need to reach graduation.

Jim Green, OSBA’s executive director, said the answers to some of Oregon’s graduation-rate challenges might be found by asking the right questions.

“We need to examine the good practices that some districts are modeling and replicate them as appropriate, keeping in mind local needs and challenges,” Green said.

“I look forward to working with Chief Innovation Officer Colt Gill and other education stakeholders to lift our state’s graduation rates through targeted strategies and investments,” Green said. “There’s no better investment Oregonians can make than in our young people.”  

This year’s “adjusted cohort graduation rate” was a slight bump from the rate of 73.8 percent in 2015 and 72 percent in 2014. The rate is a nationally used measure of what percentage of a cohort of students who started ninth grade in a given year graduate four years later. The rate is adjusted to account for students who enter or leave the school system because of transfers. The graduation rate covers regular and modified diplomas but not credentials such as GEDs and extended high school diplomas.

The adjusted cohort graduation rate has been increasing across the United States for years. The U.S. Department of Education has not updated graduation data for the class of 2016, but for the previous year, the national average was 83.2 percent. Oregon’s graduation rate for 2015 was the third-lowest in the country, one step below Mississippi, which had a 75.4 percent graduation rate.

One bright spot in the report is the graduation rate of students who take career and technical education (CTE) classes. Students who took at least one-half credit in a state-approved CTE program had a graduation rate of 85.4 percent.

CTE programs were one of the areas of focus for Measure 98, which passed in the November election. It requires the Legislature to spend about $800 per high school student to increase graduation and prevent dropouts.

Gill said communities and educators have a strong desire for Oregon to offer a more rounded education, with classes that are relevant to today’s students. Lack of funding and increased accountability on core math, reading and science classes have pulled attention away from other types of classes that build relationships and create a learning community that engages students, he said.

Jon Wiens, director of assessment and accountability at the Department of Education, points out that graduation rates are an outcome measure, not an opportunity measure.

“Graduation is not a 12th grade phenomenon,” Wiens said. “It starts much earlier than that.”