student achievement

With These Graduation Rates, Oregon’s Got Nothing to Be Proud Of

People here are proud of Oregon, especially of its natural beauty and progressive politics. And my sense is that if you took a poll, most Oregonians would say we’re ahead of the pack when it comes to education and employment policies ( like most outsiders do). But our liberal attitudes don’t automatically translate into better living. According to child well-being rankings, calculated by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Oregon is 41st in the nation when it comes to the economic well-being of children, and 34th for educational well-being. Education Week has released its annual report on state graduation rates. Not only is Oregon not doing well compared to other states, it’s doing substantially worse. When it comes to high school graduation rates, we rank a dismal fifth from the bottom—ahead of only Alaska, the District of Columbia, Nevada and New Mexico. We can’t even say we’re improving because our graduation rate rose only 4 percentage points from 2011 to 2014. Oregonians have become immune to the sad reality that is our graduation rate. Parents, students and advocates should be outraged that year after year we make little progress. Graduation rates aren’t the be-all, end-all of determining school quality, but if students aren’t graduating, then what are their prospects for the future? Having a diploma is essential to getting a well-paying job and too many of our students aren’t able to access those kinds of jobs. State leaders like to talk about their efforts to create change and put forward solutions, all while calling into question the accuracy of these types of reports. In the past, some claimed that the number is misleading because it didn’t account for fifth-year high school programs (when students defer their diploma to attend community college). But Oregon fixed that problem in 2014 and now counts all of those students in its four-year graduation rate.

No excuses

Others insist that the high number of Oregonians with postsecondary degrees is proof that we’re graduating plenty of scholars. Or, my favorite excuse, that Oregon demands more of its high school students than most states when it comes to earning a diploma. So having high standards for graduation makes it okay that we aren’t doing well getting kids to finish high school? The truth is that a relatively small number of students participate in fifth-year or nontraditional high school programs (around 1,800 in 2015). And many of our highly-educated residents brought their degrees with them when they moved here for skilled jobs. The education landscape in Oregon isn’t all bad. Initiatives that have begun this year, such as full-day kindergarten and free community college, promise long-term change. And I know many of Oregon’s districts face challenges. Most districts (58 percent) are small, serving fewer than 999 students. In these places, resources can be scarce. Statewide, overall enrollment isn’t changing much year-to-year, but the makeup of the student body is shifting, comprised of 36 percent children of color in 2014-15. Many schools and districts are struggling to address the needs of students from diverse backgrounds. Where is the outrage? Why aren’t we writing letters to the editor, protesting at school board meetings or demanding that our governor put some real muscle behind her education initiatives? We need to address achievement gaps, alleviate chronic absenteeism and support the growing number of English learners. State officials have good intentions and have tried out some interventions, but so far they've been pretty toothless. Oregon’s economy is doing well right now, but how many Oregon students will be able to take advantage of that?
Iris Maria Chávez
Iris Maria Chávez is an education advocate and communications consultant, currently working with national and Oregon focused organizations to advance equity by supporting the creation of just policies, engaging with communities and supporting communications efforts that better communities in Oregon and across the nation. Iris Maria has lived in Portland for just over a year and came to the ...

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