Can Oregon schools rebound from pandemic with fewer students?
Oregon's public schools shed nearly 30,000 students from 2019 to 2021, but education officials are celebrating academic rebounds and other progress over the past two years.
New data released by the Oregon Department of Education provides a snapshot of how schools are doing, by comparing data from before, during and after distance learning. According to a new statewide report card, 83% of Oregon ninth graders were on track to graduate during the 2021-22 school year, similar to pre-pandemic levels. That figure had declined greatly the year prior, dipping to 74% when schools in many areas were closed half the year.
Despite significant improvements over the prior year, the data shows gaps when looking at race and ethnicity. Fewer than 74% of Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, American Indian and Alaska Native ninth graders were on track to graduate last year.
While the four-year (on-time) graduation rate dropped last year to 80.6%, it's still slightly higher than it was a few years prior in 2018, when it was just below 79%.
Fourth grade math and reading levels dropped below the national average last year, as national average test scores also declined from pre-pandemic years. The new data report also highlights another alarming fact: Students missed a substantial amount of school last year, even though Oregon schools were open full-time for in-person learning.
Last year, 36% of Oregon students were chronically absent, meaning they missed 10% or more of their regular school days. A whopping 52.5% of high school seniors were considered chronically absent. That's a sharp increase from 2018-19, when the overall absenteeism rate was 20% and 39% for high school seniors. It's unclear what role, if any, COVID-19 illness played in last year's attendance rates.
Oregon's long-term goal is to have 93% of students with regular attendance.
While the latest data snapshot underscores the pandemic's impact on schools across the state, education leaders say they're better positioned to help students recover from social, emotional and academic impacts of distance learning.
"Thanks to the hard work and dedication of the students, families and educators of Oregon, the 2021-22 school year was one of reconnection and growth," said Colt Gill, director of the Oregon Department of Education.
"Together, we lifted up lessons learned. We prioritized mental health and well-being as well as learning and academic growth for all of Oregon's children and youth. The last two years have shown us what we're capable of. It is a strong reminder of the spirit of engagement and partnership, and working toward a shared goal."
Oregon schools also are on a path toward diversifying teaching and leadership staff, while accounting for all students in demographic metrics.
According to ODE, reporting of nonbinary students increased for a third year in a row, as represented in fall enrollment data. The latest report also marks the first time the state has tracked the academic outcomes, attendance and likelihood of graduation for students in foster care.
Fewer students; more money
Last year also was marked by an infusion of money.
Oregon lawmakers pumped $250 million of general funds into the state's public schools, along with $21.2 million in federal dollars for initiatives and academic enrichment programs during summer 2021. That's in addition to $1.62 billion in one-time, federal relief funds that went to schools to help with learning loss, summer programming and to ensure stable staffing and instruction.
Much of that money was temporary, and enrollment declines stand to shrink school funding in many districts that lost students.
"While useful to share this annual report, the data does not adequately reflect the efforts or resiliency shown consistently by educators, students and families," Gill, the state's education leader, said in the state report card summary.
Educator pay, experience shrinking
The state report card released Nov. 17 doesn't just highlight student achievement and demographics. It also shines a light on staffing.
The number of women serving as superintendents rose from 30% in 2017-18 to 36% last year.
While Oregon celebrated having more women in top leadership positions, the state is still actively trying to diversify its teaching staff to better reflect the student population.
While 40.3% of Oregon's students are people of color, only 12.2% of teachers are people of color, according to the latest data. Building on existing diversity initiatives, Oregon passed Senate Bill 182 in 2017, creating the Educator Advancement Council to help districts put "high-quality, well-supported and culturally responsive" educators in classrooms.
In terms of pay, average teacher salaries jumped from $52,333 in 2007 to $70,402 in 2021. The average superintendent salary saw a sharper jump, going from $108,604 in 2007 to about $152,600 in 2021. When adjusted for inflation, teachers, principals and assistant principals bring home less money today than they did in 2007, while superintendents make just slightly more than they did 14 years ago.
The report notes that nearly 22% of Oregon's licensed teachers have 20 or more years of experience under their belt, but the number of new teachers with zero to four years of experience "increased significantly" from 24% in 2020-21 to 27% in 2021-22.
The full report card, along with prior year reports, is available at Oregon.gov/ode
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