Southwest Portland saw more than 250 elementary students pulled out of public school during pandemic

PMG FILE PHOTO - Graduating seniors line up to receive diplomas at the 2021 commencement ceremony for Ida B. Wells High School in Portland. The latest state data shows high school freshmen falling behind in credits needed to graduate.Oregon's statewide education agency says it's hard to pinpoint the pandemic's impacts on students, but data shows the percentage of ninth graders on-track to graduate high school plummeted during the 2020-21 school year.

The data point is one of few the Oregon Department of Education was able to capture in a report released Nov. 22.

According to the state, Oregon's on-track to graduate rate among freshmen had increased for most students during the three years prior to the onset of the pandemic. But last year, the statewide rate fell 11.7% below the 2018-19 school year. The datapoint wasn't available for the 2019-20 school year. In 2018-19, Oregon reported 85.3% of high school freshmen had enough credits to graduate on time. By 2020-21, the rate was 74%.

Portland Public Schools students showed better rates, with 86% of ninth graders on track to graduate last year. By comparison, PPS's rate was 91% in 2018-19. The percentage of seniors who completed high school on time jumped last year, from 80% in 2018-19 to 84% last year, compared with 83% statewide.

In Southwest Portland, Ida B. Wells-Barnett High School students fared better than the state and district, with 93% of Wells-Barnett freshmen on-track to graduate and the same percentage of seniors completing high school on time in 2021.

While much of the normal data is missing due to students being out of school for the majority of 2021, numbers show enrollment declined at every elementary school in Southwest Portland.

Capitol Hill Elementary School lost nearly 100 students from the 2018-19 school year to last year, reporting enrollment of 339 students. At Bridlemile Elementary, enrollment went from 520 students to 436. Reike Elementary dropped from 380 students to 335 in 2020-21. Markham Elementary saw the smallest decline, with 23 fewer students last year.

The decline in enrollment is part of a statewide trend. School districts saw major declines as parents looked to private schools or home school options when Oregon public schools remained in a distance learning model for the last quarter of 2020 and nearly all of the 2020-21 school year. Districts also reported parents delaying kindergarten enrollment for their kids during the pandemic.

ODE officials say they're troubled by statewide numbers showing certain student groups like migrants, homeless and English language learners are falling behind on credits at a disproportional rate. In Portland, homeless students, as well as indigenous, Native Hawaiian and Alaska native students showed the lowest on-track rates.

In Portland, this year isn't shaping up to be much better.

Shawn Bird, deputy superintendent for instruction and school communities at PPS, shared numbers during a meeting with the teachers union, indicating students of color in PPS need help.

"Our Black, Latino and Native American students have Ds and Fs at higher rates of their white counterparts," Bird said, noting the same is evident for English learners and students with disabilities.

A lack of state testing during the 2020-21 school year and prolonged distance learning made it difficult to fully gauge the level of learning loss happening among K-12 students.

In this year's data report from the state, entire charts and sections were blank. The overwhelming message: We don't know how Oregon's students did during long periods of distance learning, because we stopped testing and tracking many of them.

It was a move deemed a double-edged sword for the state. If districts moved ahead with annual standardized testing and essential skills evaluations remotely, it would be difficult or nearly impossible to administer. But the absence of proficiency data means the state is left without meaningful ways to measure student impacts, outcomes and deficiencies during a time when educators and agencies are desperately trying to make up for lost learning, keep students on track, or bring them back into the education system.

"The students, families and educators of Oregon have been dealing with the toughest education challenge in our state's history for more than 20 months," said Colt Gill, director of the Oregon Department of Education. "The school year covered by this Annual Statewide Report Card was like no other, but by the end, we saw reason for hope."

That hope? The availability of vaccines, including for kids, which paved the way for schools to reopen in fall 2021.

What's missing

During the 2020-21 school year, Oregon got federal approval to pause required state testing in English language arts, mathematics and science at various grade levels. Diploma requirements also were waived, meaning students didn't have to take proficiency tests to graduate.

Some students still took standardized tests, but the participation rates were so low, the state's education agency cautioned that the results aren't an accurate indicator of overall achievement or proficiency. The state also cautioned that the results can't accurately be compared between school districts or student demographic groups, or even to previous, pre-COVID school years.

According to ODE, only 37.5% of third graders took their required English Language Arts assessments. An even lower percentage — less than 29% of seventh graders — took required mathematics and English assessments.

Attendance-taking protocols also were relaxed as students logged in from home for their classes.

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