Ashland High School also sees slight decline during first full school year under COVID-19 restrictions
By Alex Baumhardt, Oregon Capital Chronicle
The state’s average four-year high school graduation rate fell just two percentage points during the last school year despite major hurdles to instruction from the pandemic, according to data released Thursday by the Oregon Department of Education.
The average four-year graduation rate in the state went from 83% for the class of 2020 to 81% for the class of 2021, which graduated more than 37,000 seniors. About 8,900 students didn’t graduate with their class.
State statistics show Ashland High School dipped just under 3 percent, to 91.24 percent for the 2020-21 school year, the first full school-year impacted by COVID-19 restrictions, off from a 93.97 percent graduation rate for the prior year. The latest figures show there were 198 graduates in Ashland High’s four-year group of 217 students. If the rate had stayed the same, another six students would have graduated.
Ashland, however, remains well ahead of Jackson County’s overall rate, which was also less than 3% lower, down to 82.19% from 83.43% the prior year.
The drop in statewide graduation rate was off just 2% despite a nearly 50% chronic absentee rate for high school seniors during the last school year, meaning nearly half of students missed more than 10% of their classes.
Jon Wiens, director of accountability and reporting at the Education Department, said teacher records of attendance were inconsistent between online and in-person instruction and between districts, calling into question the accuracy of the high absentee figure.
Prior to the pandemic, regular school attendance rates in Oregon stood at about 80%.
High school graduation rates have picked up in Oregon since the second decade of the 2000s, increasing, overall, by one to three percentage points every year since about 2010.
“It’s both a big deal to thousands of students when the graduation rate is upwards by two percentage points, and I think it’s a big deal to those students who do not graduate from high school when the graduation rate declines by two percentage points,” said David Liebowitz, a professor at the University of Oregon’s College of Education who studies education methods and policy.
When it comes to squaring a high absentee rate with only a slight decrease in the graduation rate, Marc Seigel, communications director at the Education Department wrote in an email, “The class of 2021 had nearly three years of in-person high school prior to the beginning of the pandemic. Many of these students were well on their path to graduation when the pandemic began, and were able to maintain that momentum despite the challenges of the pandemic.”
No traditional four-year high school experienced an increase in graduation rates by 10% or more.
A mix of 43 traditional four-year high schools and charter schools had graduation rates of 100%. The lowest graduation rate in the state was at Southern Oregon Success Academy, an alternative school near Grants Pass in southwest Oregon, which graduated just one of its 48 seniors.
Powers High School in Coos Bay suffered one of the steepest declines in the state, dropping from 80% for the class of 2020 to 50% for the class of 2021. Newport High School in Newport, Taft High School in Lincoln City and Rainier Jr/Sr High School along the Oregon/Washington border experienced a drop by about one-third in the graduation rate.
For the 2021-2022 school year, the department suspended certain requirements in reading, writing, and mathematics that students formerly had to complete to graduate. This was so that they could review the impact those additional requirements had on students who continually face low graduation rates, according to Siegel.
To graduate, students in Oregon need to earn 24 “high academic” credits in English, math, science and social studies, as well as health, arts or language and health and physical education.
Up to 2020, they also had to demonstrate proficiency in nine essential skills by either passing a state test or submitting work samples. During the pandemic, when states were allowed to suspend standardized tests, the Oregon agency elected to use the break to determine whether the proficiency skills required were unnecessarily impeding graduation.
Overall, the latest data show graduation rates declined slightly for students who are male, Black, Hispanic, Native and Pacific Islander, migrant students and students who are homeless.
Graduation rates slightly increased for students with disabilities, some English Language Learners and economically disadvantaged students.
The cohort completion rate — that is, the graduation rate when including those who pursued a GED, a high school equivalency diploma — went up by half a percentage point, indicating that route became slightly more utilized last year.
Overall, about 40% of Oregon’s 539 high schools had graduation rates below the state average. About 100 had rates below 70%, and about half of those were alternative schools or virtual charters.
According to Liebowitz, “Just a small subset of schools can have a major impact on the state’s overall graduation rate. A very small number of schools contribute to a lot of the high school dropouts around the state.”
The dropout rate in 2021 was just under 2%, according to data from the Education Department.
Liebowitz said it’s hard to pinpoint any one reason for a decline or increase in graduation rates in an individual year, but a loss of two percentage points in graduation rate means thousands of students.
“I think that the right way to think about this is to think about the individual students who are on the margin completing, or not completing, high school and the life opportunities that implies for them if they do or don’t complete high school,” he said.
Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Ashland.news editor Bert Etling contributed to this version of the story; email him at email@example.com.