By Betsy Hammond

The Oregonian

Sixteen months after a scathing state audit said the Oregon Department of Education urgently needed to take action to help raise the state’s low graduation rate, the department has completed just three of 13 actions that auditors called for, according to a follow-up report made public Wednesday.

Notably, that report said, the department has failed to emphasize and measure middle schools’ success at preparing students for high school. Nor, auditors said, has it offered schools any advice on how to provide quick intervention for students who’ve begun to miss too much school or to better serve students who change school districts during high school. Students who are chronically absent or switch districts mid-school-year are at huge risk of failing to graduate.

To its credit, the department has given schools more information about the importance of reducing absenteeism and tools that can help, auditors said. It also has for the first time provided school districts with data about absenteeism and graduation rates for students who’ve attended different districts during their high school careers, the follow-up report said. Agency officials told auditors many district leaders indicated they had never examined data about mobile students’ success rates and found it eye-opening, which created an opportunity to talk about ways to improve.

Oregon’s high school graduation rate has improved modestly in the past couple years but remains one of the lowest in the nation, with just 79 percent of high schoolers in the class of 2018 earning diplomas after four years. Oregon’s rate for the class of 2017, the most recent year for which the federal government has made comparisons, ranked No. 49 in the nation.

In 2018, every large high school in Central Oregon except La Pine and Redmond had a higher graduation rate than the statewide average. The majority of high schools in the region had between 87 and 95 percent of seniors graduating, and some, like Madras and Culver high schools, reported major jumps in graduation rates, particularly among students of color.

Graduation rates are particularly low for low-income students, students of color and students with disabilities. And newly published information from the Oregon Department of Education shows that students who switch school districts during or after freshman year — something one in four Oregon high school students experience — are roughly as likely to drop out as earn a diploma. Nearly 90 percent of students who stay in one district, meanwhile, graduate on time.

The original audit recommended that the education agency “research and recommend effective approaches to districts and schools on ways to better serve students who change districts and schools.” The follow up report said that has not happened.

Education department officials generally blamed a lack of money and personnel for its failure to follow through on most of the audit recommendations. It also said it lacked authority to set requirements for school districts or didn’t want to impose new demands on them.

Auditors gave the department good marks for conducting new research on the effect of student mobility on graduation and creating one web site with tools to address chronic absenteeism and another replete with ideas for raising graduation rates.

In a statement, state schools chief Colt Gill noted that the state’s graduation rate has improved on his watch and said, “I welcome the secretary of state’s efforts to highlight our successes at (the education department) to lead this work across our schools and districts and to point out where additional focus is necessary.”

Gill, who was previously Gov. Kate Brown’s “education innovation officer” in charge of improving graduation rates, took the helm of the state education department just two months before the original audit was made public in December 2017. At the time, Gill committed in writing that 12 employees at his agency would carry through on all 13 recommendations. Since then, four of the 12 have left the department, two for retirement and two to work elsewhere, according to agency spokesman Marc Siegel.

— Bulletin reporter Jackson Hogan contributed to this report

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