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Audit critical of ODE's efforts to boost graduation

Some statewide plans and funding to boost on-time graduation already are in the works

CHRISTOPHER OERTELL/HILLSBORO TRIBUNE - Liberty High School students show off their diplomas during a graduation ceremony at Hillsboro Stadium June 10, 2017.The Oregon Department of Education has failed to help school districts use data to identify and support students most at risk of not graduating on time, according to an audit released Tuesday by Oregon Secretary of State's Office.

For instance, pupils who change school districts during high school have graduation rates about 30 percent worse than those who remain in the same school system. The group makes up more than 25 percent of high school enrollees, yet the education department does not track, analyze or report their graduation performance.

The percentage of Oregon students who graduate on time has inched up for the past five years — even with increases in the number of credits required, but the rate remains third worst in the nation. Only 75 percent of Oregon public high school students graduate on time. The average rate nationwide is 84 percent.

"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."

The audit also found that more than 70 percent of pupils who don't graduate on time come from low-income households. The likelihood of their failure to graduate often becomes evident as early as middle school, yet the education department has neglected addressing middle-school performance and the transition to high school, according to the audit.

Auditors said the state could improve graduation rates by identifying specific groups of students who are struggling and targeting programs toward them. The education department's plans have focused on students of color, migrants and English language learners. But auditors found that the agency could yield better results if it also tracked and used improvement tools among pupils who transfer between districts, live in low-income households and are in middle school.

Auditors recommended that the education department collect data on individual students' grades and credit attainment to analyze and identify: when students most often fall behind, courses with high failure rates, and how performance in specific courses affects graduation. The agency then needs to draw from education research and practices in successful districts to better support students in transition and in schools with mid-range graduation rates, the audit said.

"The ODE must aggressively assess and assist school districts if they are to provide the help students need to be successful in school and graduate on time," Richardson said.

Auditors acknowledged that the education department and schools face some limitations in financing some of the work needed to boost graduation in the state. The state Legislature does not fully fund schools, as prescribed by the state's Quality Education Model.

Colt Gill, acting deputy superintendent of schools, largely agreed with the findings of the audit.

"Many of the themes in the audit are consistent with what we have identified in recent years, and we look forward to using the audit results to move our work forward," Gill wrote in a Dec. 14 letter to Audits Division Director Kip Memmott.

Some statewide plans and funding to boost on-time graduation already are in the works. Those plans focus on reducing chronic absenteeism, preventing students from dropping out and increasing access to college-level courses in high school and to career technical education. The state's two-year budget allocates $170 million to increase graduation rates and $7.4 million to reduce chronic absenteeism. Full-day kindergarten also started in 2015 to try to help students' long-term outcomes.

Gov. Kate Brown said in a statement Tuesday that many of the issues identified in the audit are addressed in a strategic plan Gill and his team are "pushing forward."

"We know that schools and districts cannot do this alone, which is why the Oregon Department of Education is partnering with them and providing guidance that enables students to thrive instead of just survive," Brown said.

Paris Achen
Portland Tribune Capital Bureau
email: pachen@portlandtribune.com
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