The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Oregon’s Graduation Rate Insanity

on September 1, 2016

I haven’t written anything this week because I’ve been busy having fun with my sister who is visiting from New Jersey. Fortunately, I have been saved from complete inactivity by a friend, Doug Garnett, who is a parent, businessman, and member of Oregon Save Our Schools.  He is the author of  the article below which contains important information for all readers, but especially for Oregonians.

Every fall, Oregon leaders wail and rend their clothes when the annual state-by-state report on high school graduation rates is released. After all, each year Oregon ranks no higher than 40th lowest out of 50 states.

These politicians, state education bureaucrats, and newspaper writers tell us the report means our schools (and students) are bad. And they trot out the latest magic bureaucratic powders promising make every child above average.

But it’s time to take a deep breath and think a little more clearly about graduation rates. Because this has been going on for so long it’s time to question what the report really means.

First, graduation rates are a problem – but a major societal problem. In today’s job market it is virtually impossible to get a job (any job) without a high school diploma.

That means every time a school denies a diploma, or a student fails to make their way through the bureaucratic maze of high school requirements, that student will struggle to get a first job, much less establish financial independence.

This is a very human problem for society.

State-by-state graduation reports are misleading. None of Oregon’s politicians, bureaucrats nor even the Oregonian take time to stop to figure out whether it’s valid to compare graduation rates between states. I suppose they assume that common sense says “high school diploma” means the same thing everywhere.

But it doesn’t. “High school graduation” means something different in every state in the union.

What does graduation mean in other states? Many states offer 4, 5, or even 6 types of high school diplomas. Many offer life credits or reduced requirements with students receiving these different flavors of diploma.

These diplomas aren’t offered to drive up their rankings in these reports (although that’s probably a nice benefit). Published interviews with officials from those other states note how critical it is for students to have diplomas simply to find employment. And that it’s the school’s job to respond to society.

What about Oregon? In Oregon, we have one primary graduation option — the full diploma. Up until last year, Oregon only reported full diplomas in our reports to the US Department of Education. Oregon also issues “modified diplomas” for special education students (I have a son who is on the modified diploma track).

Prior to 2015, modified diplomas had never been reported by Oregon as a “graduation” even though most other states did report them. When Oregon finally changed, our graduation rate jumped by about two percentage points from 70% to 72%. Not bad for correcting a reporting error.

Yet, today these are the only two options possible in Oregon. After tracking this issue for some time, this limit puts Oregon low on the list – NOT weaknesses in our schools. And that means politicians are messing with schools every year based on false data.

Does a single diploma option even make sense? When I came to this realization, I started really pondering a fundamental question: what should a diploma indicate?

It strikes me as odd to demand that the future physicist or mathematician meet the same requirements as the future writer or musician who also meet the same requirements as the future machinist or army ranger.

These requirements seem based on an idealized 1950’s view of 4-year high school. They also seem to assume a diploma must mean “ready for college” – a silly criterion given that the majority of kids won’t go to a 4 year institutions.

I’m not suggesting we “weaken” requirements. Rather, Oregon would be stronger if we created ways kids earn diplomas doing things that are most appropriate and meaningful for their future. A one-size-fits-all diploma doesn’t do this.

For example, not all high school grads need algebra (nor do most college grads). Yet it is required throughout our system. (I wish that K12 and colleges would align requirements with student needs instead of being driven by the University need to establish higher positioning on the US News Rankings.)

And if a student’s intelligence lies outside the classic academic track, they should have options in areas more appropriate to their nature – like woodworking, automotive, business, marketing, health, etc… And THOSE classes should be able to replace fundamentals currently required by the state.

But I started with a headline about insanity. Why insanity?

 Politicians, ODE and the Oregonian fit perfectly the old saw…that doing the same thing but expecting different results is insanity.

Every year they see the same results. Every year they wring their hands. Every year they demand that we impose drastic changes that hurt schools.

It’s time to stop the insanity. It’s time to re-think what a high school diploma should mean. And, it’s time to create a wider range of diploma options for Oregon students because it’s important to society.

2 responses to “Oregon’s Graduation Rate Insanity

  1. Don Bellairs says:

    The diploma is a distraction, a symbol awarded by a wizard hiding behind a curtain. If diploma shortages were a real problem, officials in Oregon’s education department could award diplomas to anybody who was “proficiency graded” often enough.

    “Diploma” is a word full of sound and fury, but still just a word.

    So when Mr. Garnett suggests that it is time to rethink the meaning of a diploma, he really means it is time to rethink what a high school experience means.

    Schools in other developed nations send big portions of the population into apprenticeships at age fifteen and sixteen. The nineteen-year-olds who have the energy to go out at night are buying beer with their own money, not their parents. American schools try send everybody to college to get high evaluations for their districts in US News and World Report.

    Oregon’s most highly-rated district, Corbett, has learned to make all it’s kids apply to college. There is no indication that all those kids are prepared.


  2. rbeckley58 says:

    Now take a look at the federal stats for graduation and feel your head spin. Their definition of high school grads even includes 26 year olds getting GEDs. I suspect their ever expanding criteria is to cover the damage caused by NCLB.


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