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Oregon graduation rate climbs to 83%, a new high, but schools may have lowered the bar for a diploma

OregonLive.com logo OregonLive.com 1/21/2021 Eder Campuzano and Betsy Hammond, oregonlive.com
The biggest improvements in Oregon graduation rates occurred among Black and Latino students and students with disabilities. About 76% of Black students graduated within four years statewide and nearly 80% of Latinos did so. © Portland Public Schools/Photo courtesy Portland Public Schools/oregonlive.com/TNS The biggest improvements in Oregon graduation rates occurred among Black and Latino students and students with disabilities. About 76% of Black students graduated within four years statewide and nearly 80% of Latinos did so.

Oregon’s high school graduation rate climbed nearly 3 percentage points to reach 83% for the class of 2020, marking a fourth straight year of significant gains in the much-watched benchmark.

The biggest improvements occurred among Black and Latino students and students with disabilities.

About 76% of Black students graduated within four years statewide and nearly 80% of Latinos did so. Approximately 60% of students with disabilities graduated on time.

But the unprecedented upheaval that Oregon schools experienced last spring, as the pandemic closed them with little warning and educators were ordered to abandon normal grading practices, calls into question whether the latest uptick was primarily the result of schools improving their performance or relaxing their standards.

Oregon schools chief Colt Gill said he thinks the improved graduation rate reflects schools’ greater success helping students in the class of 2020 succeed during their first 3 1/4 u00be year of high school, not a pandemic-imposed change in grading or expectations in the final three months.

“Students who were on track to graduate in their senior year were” already primed to do so, he told The Oregonian/OregonLive.

Oregon officials have long pledged to improve the state’s poor record of getting students to earn diplomas in four years of high school. The most recent federal ranking, for the class of 2018, put Oregon in a tie with Arizona for the third-worst graduation rate in the country.

Gill contends that Oregon requires its high schoolers to complete more credits to earn a diploma compared to other states. Though technically true, that statistic is due in large part to the number of electives the state’s high schoolers must complete before graduating, not more stringent requirements to pass English, math or science.

Gill pointed to the statewide trend in graduation rates over the last half-dozen years, during which Oregon registered nearly an 11 percentage points gain.

He told The Oregonian/OregonLive that 2020 1/4 u2032s numbers are “not out of line with that six-year average.”

Among large districts, McMinnville, Woodburn and Hillsboro posted the best graduation rates for low-income students and Latinos.

Among districts with at least 100 students in the class of 2020, the highest overall graduation rates were in Sherwood (98%) and Lake Oswego (96%), communities with high rates of parental education and some of the lowest rates of child poverty on the West Coast.

The state’s largest district, Portland Public Schools, posted an 84% on-time graduation rate, 3 percentage points higher than for the class of 2019.

Rates for both its Black and Latino students improved about 4 percentage points to reach approximately 77%

After Gov. Kate Brown ordered schools to close in March, the Department of Education cancelled standardized testing, ordered schools not to give failing grades to any seniors who were passing a class as of March 1 and waived the requirement that students in the class of 2020 demonstrate proficiency in reading, writing and math to earn a diploma.

Gill said schools used the time and energy they normally would have used to get students to prove proficiency in the three subjects, either with test scores or detailed essays or math write-ups, to instead contact seniors who were deficient in credits required for graduation and help them complete those classes.

“It did allow districts to redirect the efforts of counselors and administrators for students who were not on track,” Gill said.

In Portland Public Schools, district leaders credit the efforts of educators and partner organizations such as Latino Network and Self Enhancement, Inc., which provides academic support for the district’s Latino and Black students, for helping some of the district’s most vulnerable student populations stay afloat.

“While the pandemic obviously threw us a huge curve ball, we were able to leverage the relationships we already had in place,” said Korrina Wolfe, the district’s senior director for the Multiple Pathways to Graduation program.

Those partner organizations helped track down and assist students with myriad issues during the pivot to distance learning. Some made home visits to deliver internet hotspots for families who couldn’t afford access. Others did so to check in with students who needed a shoulder to lean on, figuratively speaking.

“We’ve really worked to meet students where they’re at in all the settings they’re in,” Wolfe said.

Still, the district saw pockets of decreased success.

In Northeast Portland’s Madison High School, for instance, about 76% of Latino students graduated, a 4 percentage point decline from 2019. Latinos at Jefferson High posted a striking drop, from 76% to 62%.

Ledezma said there was no one reason for the drops in various schools.

“We’re really taking a student-specific approach and assessing those unique needs,” she said.

Wolfe added that in most cases, students who don’t graduate on time are facing intense pressures outside of school. For example, some live in homes where they split their time between work and school.

“Sometimes students have had to prioritize things outside of school,” she said. “We’ve always had students who took care of their families. That increased due to the pandemic.”

—Eder Campuzano and Betsy Hammond

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