Pamplin Media Group

In Oregon, few academic benchmarks are being kept at the state level, and even fewer being shared. But the preliminary data that is available, which has yet to be validated by districts, indicates that many students are regularly missing classes, particularly at the upper grades and that many high schoolers are failing at least one class.

What’s more, the gaps in attendance and achievement seem to be greater among students of color.

Even with the state’s loose definition of what it means to attend a class, students of color are missing class at a higher rate than their white peers, according to records obtained by Pamplin Media Group from the Oregon Department of Education. Records from 12 districts, ranging from the state’s largest to four rural districts, show that during the first month of the academic year:

  • Attendance for American Indian and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander students lags behind the rate of white students by 7 percentage points.
  • Black students have an attendance gap of 5 points
  • Latino students have a gap of 4 points
  • Asian students are attending at a slightly higher rate than white students
  • The attendance gaps for students of color in the three rural Oregon districts sampled were half that of what’s seen in urban and suburban districts.
  • Attendance dropped off at higher grades. For example, attendance dropped from 97% at fourth grade to 95% at eighth grade and 91% among high school seniors. That pattern was consistent among urban, suburban and rural districts.

Although the state is not collecting grades from districts, high schools are tracking the number of students passing/failing classes. Some districts provided those records to Pamplin Media Group. Based on our reporting, districts appear to be using slightly different measurements, making comparisons between districts difficult.

In Portland Public Schools — Oregon’s largest school district — the proportion of high school students failing at least one class is up from the 2019-20 school year.

Recently collected data shows students of color in PPS are failing at two and three times the rate of their white peers.

Similarly, in the large suburban Hillsboro School District the percentage of all students failing half or more of their classes during the first quarter of 2020-21 is double what it was the prior year, and the failure rate for Latino students is twice the rate of their white peers

That pattern holds at some rural schools as well.

At Banks High School, in western Washington County, the number of students failing at least one class during the first moth of school jumped more than 25% this year. And, while Latino students make up just 7% of rural school’s student body, they represent 30% of the students who are failing classes.

In rural Gervais, a Willamette Valley farming community where more than half the students are Latino, the failure rate has jumped, according to school officials.

The stark gaps in achievement across different student demographics aren’t new, but they may have been amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think we’re seeing what we saw in brick and mortar exacerbated,” said Amber Fields, director of secondary education, career and college at Tigard-Tualatin School District, a suburban district southwest of Portland. “The root causes are vast and we’re still trying to unpack those. It seems to be very polar. Either you’re able to engage and we’re able to help you navigate, or you’re not able to engage and we can’t help.”

Kristyn Westphal, an area senior director in PPS’s Office of School Performance, said keeping students engaged in school requires a nuanced approach.

Westphal said school psychologists meet and look at attendance data to assess which students need extra support.

“They look at where do we have gaps, who have we not heard from in a long time? Who’s showing up for class but not completing assignments?” Westphal said. “They’re considering a lot of things. A lot of kids have anxiety or depression. Some families are really overloaded and it’s just too much to keep it straight in terms of the schedule. Some are dealing with loss and grief, so staff are really trying to problem-solve on an individual level.”

This article is part of a collaborative reporting project called Lesson Plans: Rural schools grapple with COVID. It includes the Institute for Nonprofit News, Charlottesville Tomorrow, El Paso Matters, Iowa Watch, The Nevada Independent, New Mexico in Depth, Underscore News/Pamplin Media Group, and Wisconsin Watch/The Badger Project. The collaboration was made possible by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation.

Courtney Vaughn is a reporter for the Portland Tribune who has covered K-12 education in Oregon’s two largest school districts.