With one in four students in Oregon not graduating high school on time, state auditors are calling on the Oregon Department of Education to take additional steps to increase the state’s graduation rate.
An audit released Tuesday by the Secretary of State’s audits division found the department has prioritized improving four-year graduation rates, leading to a five percent increase in the last five years.
But Oregon’s 75 percent graduation rate is still the third lowest in the country. The national average rate is 84 percent.
Not only does this impact individual student’s success, but the success of the communities where they live.
Research shows as long as graduation rates are below 100 percent, non-graduates earn less and require more social services, costing Oregonians hundreds of millions of dollars in Medicare, lost tax revenue and incarceration expenses every year.
The department of education has been given the state goal of graduating 100 percent of high school seniors by 2025.
Auditors recommended the agency works with schools to show them how to use data to identify students in danger of not graduating, ease the transition from middle to high school and communicate the importance of graduation to parents and the community.
Colt Gill, acting deputy superintendent for the state, told the Statesman Journal the department agrees with the recommendations overall and that some of the program recommendations had already been implemented.
But he said there is more work to be done, especially concerning students of color, tribal students and English language learners.
“Oregon’s high school graduation rate is absolutely unacceptable,” Gov. Kate Brown said Tuesday. “The audit’s findings confirm the needs and opportunities that (Gill) and his team are pushing forward through their strategic plan.
“We know that schools and districts cannot do this alone,” she said, “which is why the Oregon Department of Education is partnering with them and providing guidance that enables students to thrive instead of just survive.”
Gill wrote a letter, included in the audit, which addresses the recommendations. The projects listed in it are expected to be complete by June 2019, with most coming to fruition in 2018.
Support transfer students
Students who transfer between districts are among the highest at risk to not graduate on time.
Students who changed districts during high school, according to the audit, had graduation rates roughly 30 percent lower than students who did not. These students account for more than a quarter of all high school students.
And auditors found Oregon does not analyze or report graduation performance for these students.
Gill said the department tracks a “mobility rate,” but will be providing a framework for districts across Oregon to use. This is meant to provide more consistency when students change schools or districts.
He said tracking these students is important so schools can provide better support and counseling services knowing the students’ backgrounds.
This is especially tricky since Oregon has one of the highest student-to-counselor ratios in the nation, with one counselor for every 600 students.
The department plans to gather examples of schools with high rates of success for mobile students and publish case studies to share best practices. Included in the case studies should be effective practices for transferring credit, partial credit and proficiency credit.
More services for low-income students
More than 70 percent of students who do not graduate on time come from low-income families.
Auditors concluded the department should “assess the need for services to help those students succeed.” Reducing food insecurity, increasing access to medical services and increasing access to school counselors are examples given to help these students.
Gill highlighted three ways the department is addressing this need.
The first is working with the Chief Education Office for the state, which recently released a report on best practices for helping students navigating poverty.
Additionally, the department is working with the Legislature to fund the state’s chronic absenteeism plan, he said. This includes expanding the Tribal Attendance Pilot Projects that help Native American students.
Addressing absenteeism, Gill said, overlaps frequently with poverty and has a significant impact.
Nationwide, 83 percent of kindergarteners and first graders who are chronically absent — meaning they miss 10 percent or more school days a year — do not read on grade level by third grade. This makes them four times more likely to not graduate on time.
Gill said the state is also working on programs under Measure 98, passed last year, which is now referred to by the state as the High School Success Fund.
He said the state is advising districts to develop programs that specifically address students not succeeding now, including mobile students, students of color, students navigating poverty and English Language Learners.
Linda Myers, the director of Strategic Initiatives for Salem-Keizer Public Schools, said statistics dating back to 2014 indicate high school students who identify as black in Salem-Keizer are over three times more likely to drop-out compared to their white peers.
In response, the district leveraged Measure 98 funds to hire a community resource specialist to focus on black students in grades 9-12 identified as “high risk” for dropping out, Myers said.
This position focuses on supporting students with issues of absenteeism, credit recovery, study habits and behavior.
“Since September, we have already seen an improvement in regular attendance, homework completion and improved grades in many of these targeted students,” she said.
Don’t leave middle schoolers out
Auditors also found a gap in which schools and students are getting attention and additional support from the state.
Schools with mid-range graduation rates — 67 to 85 percent — receive limited improvement support from the department, according to the audit, even though most non-graduates attend these schools.
And students struggling in middle school are not being given the tools they need to make the transition to high school a successful one.
“The Legislature and ODE (have) not emphasized middle school performance or student transitions from middle school to high school, though students who struggle in middle school are already at risk of not graduating,” auditors found.
The department has previously provided support at the school level. They plan to work more at the district level to address some of these needs and include these schools in statewide initiatives and plans, according to Gill’s letter.
They also plan to recommend state initiatives and performance measures for preK-12 grades on high school graduation outcomes, focusing on the role of middle schools.
Track the data
The department collects various data related to graduation rates, including discipline incidents, attendance, class sizes, assessment scores and freshmen-on-track rates.
However, the department doesn’t track student grades or specific credits attained, information auditors say could be used to help more students graduate.
“This lack of student-level course performance data limits ODE’s ability to analyze barriers to graduation,” according to the audit. “Class performance data would help (the department) analyze when students are most likely to fall off track, which courses have high failure rates and how students’ success or failure in specific courses ties to graduation.”
While some states have one student information system that tracks everything from attendance to behavior, Gill said Oregon districts each have their own system. The state only requires certain indicators to be reported.
In order to move to a single system that would include the recommended data, change has to happen at the legislative level.
Gill said the state will send guidance to schools between now and the potential legislative change, which could happen in the 2019 session.
Show why graduation matters
Auditors also found the department needs to better explain the importance of graduation to parents and the community.
“Earning a high school diploma is a key life milestone,” auditors wrote. “This achievement … expands livelihood and career opportunities, whether a graduate enters the workforce or continues with higher education.”
In contrast, research used in the audit shows not graduating leads to higher unemployment, lower incomes, poorer health and higher incarceration rates.
Students aren’t the only ones who face the consequences.
“Society also faces financial impacts such as higher social service and incarceration costs, and lower tax revenues from non-graduates,” according to the audit. “This cost is estimated at $260,000 to $292,500 for each student without a high school diploma.”
“We need Oregon’s Department of Education to step up its game and assume its leadership role to make Oregon a leader in education,” said Secretary of State Dennis Richardson. “Oregon students deserve a world-class education and it’s ODE’s job to show how to get there.”