Oregon’s High School Graduation Rate Almost to National Average

A cartoon high school. Illustration by Gabrielle Campbell.

Oregon has a history of low graduation rates; just ten years ago, in 2010, Oregon had a graduation rate of 66.2 percent. For clarification, a high school graduation rate is considering how many students graduate in four years. That would mean students in high school who graduate in five years or people who go through alternate programs, like getting a General Education Diploma (GED), would not be considered as a graduate. For the graduating class of 2019, the rate was 80 percent or a 13.5 point increase in ten years. That increase is a huge accomplishment for Oregon.

According to Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB), a big reason for this growth is Measure 98, or the High School Success Act, which passed in 2016. Measure 98 allowed the Oregon Department of Education to spread 170 million dollars throughout Oregon’s 255 high school districts from 2017-2019. The funds specifically were used for dropout prevention programs, expanding career and technical education classes, and allowing more college-level education opportunities. This extra funding, dispersed through the districts based on size, helped expand programs such as Advanced Placement (AP), dual credit and S.T.E.M. classes.

But Oregon and Portland Public Schools (PPS) are still a few points below the national average of 84 percent, with PPS being at 80.5 percent for the class of 2019. According to Franklin counselor Maleka Allen, this could be caused by many factors. “[Oregon has] different types of regions. We have very urban regions, and then we have agriculture,” she said. “In the agricultural regions, a lot of the students work on farms.” She said that students in the agricultural parts of Oregon often move for work, which makes graduating high school difficult.

Another reason could be relevancy, a problem that both rural and urban students struggle with. “[Rural students] might say stuff like, ‘why do I have to go to school when I’m just going to be working for my dad or a farm?’” Allen said. “That also goes for some of our kids in the urban setting as well,” continued Allen. Many students don’t see how things like chemistry and world history apply to their lives outside of school. Even students who excel in school struggle to see how the teachings apply in everyday life. “None of the classes offered seem like they will prepare me for the real world,” said an anonymous Franklin student. “When will I have to find the atomic mass of sixty hydrogen atoms as a lawyer? Never. I just wish they would focus on career paths instead of trying to shove information we will never use down our throats.”

School can also become difficult when factors from a student’s life outside of school take over. “One of the biggest things that we work with inside [the counseling office] is how to support students who have to be caregivers, earn money to support families, et cetera,” Allen said. It is very difficult to be able to take care of siblings, work a job, and go to school at the same time. Many of these students drop out of school. In addition to this, teenage homelessness is a rampant problem in Oregon. “When homelessness becomes a factor, it becomes almost impossible to graduate. We can make it happen, but it’s tough,” said Allen. Oregon does have a problem with homeless students: according to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), in 2019, there were an estimated 22,215 homeless students in Oregon, and 1,217 of those students were in Portland. And when a student becomes homeless, their chances of graduating on time reduces to 55.4 percent, over 25 points below the state average.

There is another gap in the Oregon graduation rate: the gap between white students and students of color. African American and Native American students were the worst off, with graduating rates of 70.4 percent and 67.7 percent respectively. That’s over ten percent less compared to the graduation rate of white students at 81.3 percent. But compared to the years past, this is actually good: In 2010, African American students had a graduation rate of 49.8 percent, and Native American students had 50.3 percent. Institutional racism is responsible for this gap, and one related factor is a lack of classes with voices of color. “As a person of color, one of the things I notice a lot in Portland Public Schools is that people don’t resemble who I am,” said Allen. PPS is a very white district, with 56.5 percent of students in 2019 identifying as white. Franklin isn’t much different than PPS, with 53.5 percent of the population being white. A lack of representation in educators and peers could lead to disengagement and disinterest in students of color.

White students also have a higher graduation rate due to the school system benefiting them. White educators, because they are white, are more ignorant to the struggles students of color face. Along with this, white educators are bringing the white-washed curriculum with them throughout their teaching career. Yukpa Wright (10) agrees that there is a bias in favor of white people in education. “I’ve had teachers give assignments to write paragraphs about if Columbus was a ‘good guy’ and that felt really insensitive.” If we had a curriculum and system that wasn’t biased towards white students, students of color would feel more welcome and supported, which could be the difference between them dropping out or not.

Franklin High School is trying to make students of color feel more connected to their classes by offering more diverse perspectives. Courses like Women’s Literature, Reading and Writing for Change and African American History display a wide range of perspectives, especially focusing on people of color. Additionally, there are many student-run clubs for students of color at Franklin, like the Black Student Union, Asian American Association, and Hawaiian Club, among others.

Despite all this, keep in mind that the graduation rate doesn’t show all the options outside of a traditional high school diploma. “You can get to graduation. You don’t need to drop out. There are many different ways you can get there,” Allen said. “[The counselors] can’t always fix everything, but we can often offer alternatives.” A great resource for students who are thinking about dropping out, other than the school counselors, is the Multiple Pathways page on the PPS website. They have gathered ten different community-based education programs and organizations to assist students who have dropped out or are at risk of doing so.

Oregon’s graduation rate, although steadily improving due to increased funding, is still twenty points away from the state’s goal of hitting 100 percent by 2025. Some ways that PPS and the state could help students stay in school are to show how the curriculum applies to life outside of school and to make support for struggling students easier to access. 

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