Whether students are graduating in four or five years, or completing high school by earning a modified diploma or GED, the goal is to finish.
And more than 83 percent of Oregon students are doing that.
But typically, the four-year graduation rate — students who earn a traditional diploma in the preferred amount of time — is used to gauge the success of a state’s education system.
And in that regard, Oregon is still doing poorly — third lowest in the country. About one in four Oregon high schoolers will fail to graduate in four years.
But there has been improvement.
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The latest numbers from the Oregon Department of Education, released Thursday, show a 2-percentage-point increase from 74.8 percent in 2015-16 to 76.7 percent in 2016-17. This is a marked improvement from 2008-09 when the rate was 66.2 percent.
Perhaps the most impressive gains were made by Hispanic/Latino students, who have increased their graduation rate by 7.6 percentage points in three years and are graduating at a rate higher than the statewide average was three years ago.
Dropout rates, not to be confused with “non-completers” who may continue their enrollment, have remained practically stagnant statewide. At 3.86 percent, this is the lowest dropout rate the state has seen in five years.
Additionally, this is the first year the department issued data on the four-year graduation rate for homeless students statewide, coming in at 50.7 percent.
State lawmakers and education officials see graduation rates as one of the most important issues facing K-12 education in the state.
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 Medicaid, lost tax revenue and incarceration expenses every year.
The Legislature has instructed the state education department to reach a 100 percent graduation rate by 2025.
Read more on the latest report: Half of Oregon’s homeless students don’t graduate
Latino students lead progress
Hispanic/Latino students’ four-year graduation rate reached a high of 72.5 percent in 2016-17.
This is a substantial improvement from 2011-12 when these students were graduating at a rate of 59.5 percent.
Other student subgroups, including Black/African American students, have seen similar increases, though they have smaller enrollments.
Roughly 20 percent of the students calculated in this year’s graduation rate identify as Hispanic/Latino.
This progress is being made at a time when the state’s achievement gap is notably shrinking.
The gap in four-year graduation rates between students of historically underserved races/ethnicities — Black, Hispanic, American Indian/Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander — and other students — White, Asian and multiracial — has been notably wide.
But it has been cut in half over the last seven years, from more than 18 percentage points to less than 9 percentage points.
Colt Gill, acting superintendent for the state, said the education department has done a better job providing information to schools on things like chronic absenteeism that can show earlier when students are getting off track.
Rather than a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, Gill said the state is looking for strategies that can address individual district’s needs.
Annalivia Palazzo-Angulo, executive director for the Salem/Keizer Coalition for Equality, has seen a lot of progress made in Salem-Keizer schools.
Salem-Keizer’s overall, four-year graduation rate is 73.36 percent, according to the state’s latest data. This is an increase from 71.71 percent in the prior year, 2015-16.
Hispanic/Latino students, who make up about half of the district’s overall enrollment, have also seen gains, going from 67.51 percent in 2015-16 to 69.95 percent in 2016-17.
Palazzo-Angulo attributes much of this progress to increased parent involvement, more options to graduate, an increased focus on equity and equity training, higher amounts and number of scholarships in Title I schools, and more bilingual and dual-language programs.
But Palazzo-Angulo anticipates more gains down the road.
“It takes 12 years of really good change to see the benefits, you know?” she said. “Nothing is ‘done,’ but it’s on its way.”
Read more about students of color: Why aren’t Native American students graduating on time? | Oregon falls short on equity for students | Oregon school diversity, absenteeism up, salaries down
Reaching the finish line
By law, Oregon public schools must provide schooling for students until they are 21 years old.
And for some, a little extra time is all they need to reach the finish line.
“There’s nothing wrong with taking five years,” Palazzo-Angulo said.
Statewide, the graduation rate increases to 78.9 percent for the five-year cohort. It increases even further if you include students considered “completers.”
Four-year completers had a rate of 80.2 percent in 2016-17 and five-year completers had a rate of 83.2 percent.
Some students are included in the five-year rate for simply needing one additional class to complete their diploma. Others may need to take another year or two.
In some states, six- and seven-year graduation rates are published for this reason.
Students who transfer schools and students living in poverty are at especially high risk of dropping out. Gill said schools are working to bring back students who haven’t finished and keep them engaged.
“Our primary hope is (for students to) graduate in four years of high school,” Gill said. “But we don’t give up on them if they don’t.”
Read more on graduation rates: Lawmakers launch effort to address graduation rates | Audit: Oregon can do more to boost graduation rates