It’s graduation season. This month, 32,000 Oregon students will walk across a stage to the sounds of cheering family and friends as they receive their high school diplomas. We should be proud of each one of those graduates and do everything we can to support their continued education. However, we still have progress to be made before we can be proud of the system that produced them. One in four students do not graduate from high school on time and, of those, many never receive a diploma. Equally concerning is that many of those 32,000 students are not prepared to succeed in college.
Assuming Governor Brown continues the previous administration’s aspirational 40-40-20 plan, we have much more work to do to realize that commitment. We cannot achieve that goal when fewer than 75% of Oregonians complete high school on time. Our state must focus public support and attention on efforts to increase graduation rates, reengage off-track and out of school students, and provide meaningful pathways to postsecondary credentials for all youth that match the needs of our growing economy.
For the past two years, Oregon has sat at or near the bottom of all states in high school graduation rates. Oregon Deputy Superintendent Rob Saxton is correct in stating that Oregon leaves itself fewer loopholes than some other states in accounting for all its students, but it is of little importance whether Oregon is last or almost last. Neither spot will enable Oregon to increase its global competitiveness. We need an education system that puts Oregon on equal footing with the highest-performing states, not the lowest. Three key strategies can help Oregon graduate more students and prepare them for post-secondary success:
- We must ensure that more students graduate on time by expanding early warning systems and reducing chronic absenteeism. Over the past decade, graduation rates have increased dramatically in communities where attention has been paid to the needs of students in all grades. We must continue to build these efforts and we can do more.
- We must provide more ways to reengage students who are off-track or have dropped out of high school. Our graduation rate reflects, in part, the fact that many young Oregonians have given up on their education. Though most of these young people know that a high school diploma and a post-secondary credential are essential for their future, countless social, academic, and economic challenges have pulled them off track. We must incentivize all school districts to create programs and pathways back to education so all students feel safe and supported, and can ultimately complete their education.
- We must ensure that earning a high school diploma means being prepared for post-secondary education. In May, the Oregonian reported on a study showing that 75% of Oregon community college students had to take non-credit remedial classes when they arrived on campus. An audit by Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins further showed that only 24% of Oregon community college students received an associate’s degree within seven years. If Oregon is going reduce its reliance on imported talent, we must better prepare our high school students for post-secondary success. Our students will benefit from more programs, such as dual enrollment or early college opportunities that provide access to authentic college experiences while in high school.
So while high school graduation should be a time for celebration, it is also time to reflect on what we can do to ensure that the more than 25% who don’t walk across the stage this year are not forgotten. If we think about graduation instead as a commencement, we should also reflect on whether our graduating students are ready to commence their postsecondary careers.
Each of these strategies represents an understanding that high school graduation is a critical stepping stone for young Oregonians and for our state to meet the needs of our economy. And, each of them represents an investment. Our current lower-than-average education spending has only gotten us to where we are today, and a forward-thinking investment in education – particularly during a strengthening economy – is one that we must make for the future of Oregon. For next June, let’s build an education system that ensures all of Oregon’s students walk across that stage.