With pandemic challenges, 81% of Salem seniors graduated in 2021

Members of the South Salem High School Class of 2021 celebrate following their graduation ceremony (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)

Four in five Salem-Keizer seniors graduated high school in 2021, a rate virtually unchanged from 2020, according to state data released Thursday.

Members of the class of 2021 were the first to complete a full year of high school online as schools in Salem and across Oregon shifted to virtual classes during the pandemic and educators often struggled to reach students at home.

Local high schools also recorded far higher than typical rates of students failing classes last school year.

Despite those challenges, 2,619 students in the class of 2021 earned a diploma in four years, giving the district an 80.9% graduation rate for 2021.

That’s compared with 81% graduation for the class of 2020, and 71.7% in 2016.

In Oregon, 80.6% of all seniors graduated in 2021, down from 82.6% in 2020.

“We knew that our grad rate would be impacted (by the pandemic)”, said Iton Udosenata, assistant superintendent for Salem-Keizer. “The fact that we’re able to maintain is a high point for us.”

(Graphic by Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

The numbers for the class of 2021 reflect the second year Oregon’s graduating high school students have not been required to pass state standardized tests in math and English or other district assessments of their abilities in those subjects to earn a diploma.

State education officials scrapped those tests for the class of 2020 as the pandemic hit, and automatically graduated seniors who were passing required courses at the time of statewide school closures in March.

In July 2021, Gov. Kate Brown signed a law saying Oregon students would not need to demonstrate proficiency in those subjects in order to graduate for the next five years.

She and other Democrats in the Legislature said suspending the requirement while the state develops new graduation rules would benefit students of color in Oregon, The Oregonian/OregonLive reported. Legislative Republicans generally opposed the change, calling it a lowering of academic standards.

Students must still pass all required courses, which include four years of English and three years of math, to complete high school.

Udosenata said the essential skills requirements are rarely the item left unfinished for high school seniors who don’t earn a diploma. Typically, they’re missing required credits.

But he said lifting that requirement has made it easier for students to graduate by allowing them to focus their limited time in completing needed credits, rather than taking a class aimed at helping them submit writing or math samples to meet proficiency requirements.

Data from the state education department shows graduation rates for students with disabilities, students not fluent in English by high school, migrant students, and homeless students remain below district averages, but those gaps didn’t worsen for the class of 2021.

(Graphic by Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Homeless students had the lowest graduation rate of any student demographic group tracked by the state, at 53%.

About 77% of Latino seniors graduated in four years, versus 84% of white seniors, rates unchanged since 2020. White students made up about 46% of the senior class, and Latino students about 41%. Graduation rates for both groups of students have steadily increased since 2016, though the gap between the two remains about the same as in 2016.

Graduation rates for Pacific Islander students fell for the second year in a row to 66%.

(Graphic by Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Udosenata said that reflected particular challenges helping Islander students attend online classes during the spring and fall of 2020.

“We were having a hard time connecting with families,” he said.

Many students had competing obligations to care for family members, he said, a factor also mentioned by Islander district outreach workers as they made home visits during online school to help families get connected.

While still below the district average, the graduation rate for students who enter high school not fluent in English increased to 60%, up from 53% in 2020. Many of those students are refugees or immigrants who come to Salem midway through their schooling years.

That remains below the state graduation rate of 64% for English learning students.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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