The Eagle Point School District celebrated its record 2019-20 graduation rate Thursday, but now it’s right back to work. The semester ends Friday, and with COVID-19’s disruptions, the district’s leaders expect grades to be down.
“We’re going to keep addressing the problems, working the problems in front of us and not stepping back and saying this is just what it is,” said Superintendent Andy Kovach.
The graduation and dropout rates released Thursday, Jan. 21, by the Oregon Department of Education are a bright spot in a difficult school year. At the same time, school leaders around the state are looking at mid-year marks and seeing huge spikes in failing grades. Next year’s report will be far more dismal unless schools can find ways to catch students up.
For 2019-20, Oregon students achieved a four-year graduation rate of 82.6% and a five-year completer rate of 87.2%, both the highest recorded. Oregon also had its lowest dropout rate, 2.4%.
“It is refreshing to hear this good news, to see the hard work of our students, our educators and our school leaders paying off,” said OSBA Executive Director Jim Green.
The on-time rate was 80% the previous year. The Oregon graduation rate has increased around 2 percentage points a year since 2013-14.
“Oregon has been on a long, steady climb with the help of a focus on equity and relationships and increased investments in schools,” Green said. “We will need all our tools as we try to keep the improvement going through this pandemic.”
Oregon still has a ways to go to catch much of the rest of the nation. The U.S. graduation rate has also been rising and was 85 percent in 2017-18, the most recent data year. Oregon was at 79% then, tied for second lowest among states.
Graduation rates are an inexact comparison, though. Oregon has among the highest credit requirements, and a variety of factors can affect how schools count graduates. After schools shifted to distance learning in the spring, ODE suspended an essential skills requirement and ruled that seniors who were on track in March to pass their needed classes would receive their diplomas.
Jon Wiens, ODE director of accountability and reporting, said he did not think the shortened school year significantly affected the graduation rate. Typically, students who are on track in the final quarter of their final year cross the finish line.
With fewer seniors to worry about in the final quarter, schools were able to target more of their staff and resources on students who were not engaged or falling short, possibly helping to lower the dropout rate, Wiens said.
Quality Education Commission Chair John Rexford, former superintendent of the High Desert Education Service District, said having students out of schools might have actually hurt the graduation rate some. Teachers would have had a harder time reaching students on the edge who they would be seeing daily in a normal year, he said.
The nine-member nonpartisan Quality Education Commission creates a report every two years that lays out the requirements and cost for a high-quality K-12 public education.
Rexford said Oregon’s years of rising graduation rates even when funding was flat is evidence of an improving school system but it will be difficult to keep the state’s rate from falling next year, especially among underserved student groups.
For the second year in a row, most historically underserved student group graduation rates improved more than the state average. But many in those same groups have been hit hardest by distance learning, lacking the resources, adult presence and technology to take full advantage of online classes.
“We just have to double down on our efforts to provide an equitable system and equitable outcomes,” Rexford said.
He said schools need to be prepared next year for students in the same grade being as much as three years apart in learning. Some students have disengaged and fallen behind, while others have thrived with distance learning and surged ahead.
The grants from the 2019 Student Success Act, with its focus on meeting individual student needs, will be crucial to keeping the graduation rate up after this year’s learning loss, he said.
Eagle Point leaders attribute its rising graduation rate largely to a sustained effort to create relationships with students and individualize learning approaches. Eagle Point High School had a 92.8% rate, and the district had an 83.3% rate overall.
Superintendent Kovach said the same systems the district used to raise its graduation rate, such as graduation coaches, student management data and home visits, would be the tools to help students recover from the pandemic’s disruptions.
The district released a video Thursday applauding its 2020 graduates and encouraging its 2021 class.
As the district prepares to bring some students back to the classrooms next week, Student Services Supervisor Phil Ortega is confident the schools and the community are positioned to help the students.
“We still have time,” he said. “We can take advantage of every single hour of every single day to get us to the best result for kids.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA