Education prospects are looking up for Oregon students.
Oregon’s four-year graduation rate rose 1.3 percentage points to 80% for 2018-19, a state high. In human numbers, 600 additional students earned a diploma.
At the same time, the gap between historically underserved students and the state average is narrowing, according to data released Thursday. Every underserved student group graduation rate went up more than the state average.
“Any increases we have with these students show we are doing the right things,” said OSBA Executive Director Jim Green.
He praised the statewide gains but said the steeper road is still ahead as districts try to reach more of the students who face higher hurdles. Districts are looking at data and listening to their students and communities to find out how to best help all students, Green said.
With the Student Success Act promising districts roughly $500 million a year targeted toward equity-supporting programs, educators see greater possibilities.
Oregon is still near the bottom of many state public education comparisons, leaving plenty of room for growth.
The Oregon graduation rate has climbed 8 percentage points since the Oregon Department of Education methodology changed for 2013-14. Oregon was fourth lowest in the nation that year. The most recent national average was 85% for 2016-17. Oregon was among nine states below 80% that year.
National comparisons can be deceptive, though, because state standards differ.
Oregon has one of the more stringent state graduation requirements. Oregon requires 24 credits to graduate. Only Connecticut requires more, and 35 states require fewer or leave it up to local districts. Some states also have different tiers of diplomas that can pad numbers.
States can game the numbers as well by not counting every dropout or transfer. ODE assumes a student to be a noncompleter, which counts against a school’s graduation rate, unless it can document that the student transferred to a new school or left the country.
ODE also released dropout data Thursday. Oregon’s 2018-19 rate of 3.3% was near a state low. The U.S. average was 5.4% in 2017, according to the most recent data. Oregon’s falling dropout rate ties in with state efforts to improve attendance, which correlates with graduation success.
Willamina School District in the Coast Range west of Salem is among the districts where hard work and concentrated efforts are showing results. The high school’s graduation rate improved from 71.4% in 2014 to 85.3% in 2019.
ODE included Willamina in the 2017-18 pilot of its schools in need of improvement process, and Superintendent Carrie Zimbrick credits ODE with helping to clarify the work the district needed to do.
The four-year school improvement process includes an ODE coach on campus. Zimbrick said continued ODE support even after Willamina data has gotten stronger is key to continued success.
Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Colt Gill told the Legislature last year he wants the agency to provide support and assistance rather than just enforce rules and collect reports. The Student Success Act has provided ODE with additional staff to assist schools.
Zimbrick said ODE has helped the district build on its successes and improve areas where it was lacking.
With the help of the Willamette Education Service District, Willamina is digging into its data to find students at risk and figure out how to best support them. Zimbrick said they have learned how to focus on individual details and schedules instead of looking at just bulk numbers.
Zimbrick is thrilled by the additional resources the act promises to focus on the students who haven’t made the gains.
“In my 35 years of being an educator, I’ve never been more excited for something,” Zimbrick said.
The superintendent also credits the community for passing a 2014 bond, much of which went to a career and technical education building. Willamina students who took CTE courses had a 90% graduation rate last year.
Statewide data bears out the success of schools’ focusing resources on CTE programs. Oregon students who took a career and technical education class graduated at an 88.9% rate, and those in a CTE course of study had a 93.5% rate, according to the 2018-19 data.
Lowell High School Principal Kay Graham also sees new money, especially around CTE, at work in her school. Lowell’s graduation rate improved from 69.6% in 2014 to 97.3% in 2019. Lowell is a small school southeast of Eugene with a cohort of about 40 students. One student didn’t graduate on time, and the district is still trying to help the student.
Some education leaders say the five-year completer rate is a better measure of success. It counts students who needed extra time or received a GED, adult high school diploma or extended diploma. Oregon’s completer rate improved to 86.5% for 2018-19.
Lowell received help through the federal Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs grants for high-poverty middle and high schools. GEAR UP helped Lowell cater to student needs, creating individual plans for students to earn the credits they needed.
Lowell added summer school and started daily afterschool study sessions in core content areas with teacher tutoring available.
Lowell was also able to bring in tutors with High School Success funds, also known as Measure 98. The 2016 voter-approved program provides enrollment-based grants to support CTE, college and career readiness, and dropout prevention programs.
The Student Success Act fully funded Measure 98, which will help Lowell as it phases out GEAR UP funding. Graham said consistency was important as the district watches programs implemented several years ago start to pay off.
“I can’t stress enough how important it is for the board and the superintendent to be on the same page,” Graham said.
Lowell School Board Chair Joyce Donnell said the board listens closely to staff needs and follows through on providing support, working closely with Superintendent Johnie Matthews.
“It helps when everybody knows where we want to go and sees what we want to accomplish and works toward that goal,” Donnell said.
Donnell named the community as another key strand of the support web lifting student graduation rates. The district passed a bond in 2017 to improve its facilities.
“The kids feel it, that they are important,” she said. “They are proud of their school, and they want to be there.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA