This week, Oregon’s graduation rates for the Class of 2021 were released. The latest rates – made up of a class subjected to 12 months of distance learning – also show a decrease from 2020’s graduation rate. The data reinforces what we have long known: this pandemic has disrupted access to critical programs and reduced student access to a high-quality education.
For instance, we know that whether a student is on-track in ninth grade is the single greatest predictor of graduation. That’s why, in 2017 Stand for Children launched the Center for High School Success (CHSS), which provided schools with in-person supports and coaching that allowed educators to identify struggling ninth graders and provide them with the tools to get back on track. Superintendents and principals were the first to say: this had a major effect on ninth grade on-track rates. Before COVID started, CHSS was supporting over 70 high schools across Oregon. This led to the state’s highest ninth grade on-track rates on record in 2019.
Once distance learning began, schools were scrambling to provide even basic resources to students, despite their best efforts, and focus on programs like ninth grade success faded. When on-track rates for students learning in this pandemic were released a few months ago, they had dipped nearly 10% to the lowest since Oregon began tracking rates in 2013.
While we know ninth grade success is a major predictor of student success, we also know that improving access to programs like Career and Technical Education (CTE) has a major impact on graduation rates. Thanks to community support, we were able to pass Measure 98 in 2016 which equitably provides funding for both CTE and dropout prevention strategies like ninth grade success. Graduation rates show that students who participated in CTE courses had a graduation rate 8 points higher than the average.
When graduation rates last hit their all-time high, Director of the Oregon Department of Education Colt Gill said, “There’s no doubt that recent programs aimed at helping specific groups of students is a factor. Measure 98, passed in 2016, is helping schools expand CTE programs, college credit opportunities and dropout prevention.”
However, students in the Class of 2021 lost access to the full scope of these programs in their 12 months of distance learning.
The data tells us indisputably that these initiatives have a direct and meaningful impact on graduation rates. While a return to in-person learning means districts are able to re-prioritize these programs, it should also ring alarm bells for the success of future graduating classes. If we are to support students through this pandemic and beyond, we must acknowledge the impact and relevance of access to these initiatives on rising and falling graduation rates, and ensure these critical programs remain a priority.