Working to fix Oregon’s grad slump

By Portland Business Alliance

Oregon’s education system is working toward achieving its ambitious 40-40-20 goal, which requires that by 2025, 40% of Oregonians have a degree from a 4-year college, an additional 40% have completed a 2-year college or certificate, and the remaining 20% have a high school degree or the equivalent. Yet, reaching those levels of education remains a challenge; Oregon’s public high school graduation rate was only 68% in 2012, a full 12 percentage points below the national average. Further, less than 30% of working-age Oregonians have completed a Bachelor’s Degree.

Senate Bill 222, passed during the 2013 Legislative Session, aims to change that. The bill aims to create new ways to earn accelerated college credit during high school, giving students a chance to get ahead, both in high school and at post-secondary institutions.

Under the proposed plan, accelerated learning programs would incorporate at least three college-credit classes at every Oregon high school, giving all students the chance to start gaining college credit ahead of time. Additionally, new and existing programs at community and technical colleges would be expanded for students to finish their high school education at the same time they work toward their Associate’s degree.

While making these options available to all students enhances their ability to move from high school to post-secondary education, critics point out that providing such programs without also offering increased academic support may not be enough. A good example is the Advanced Placement (AP) program: for colleges to accept college credits earned in high school, students typically have to achieve a minimum score on the AP tests. A score of three is generally considered to be a ‘passing’ grade for the AP test; in 2011, about 60% of Oregon AP tests received a three or above. Students who only received a one or a two on the exam will not receive college credit for their efforts.

A further complication at many colleges in recent years, a score of three is not high enough – credit is only granted for scores of four or five. Only 34.5% of Oregon AP exams had scores of four or five. Offering college-credit classes may not be enough to encourage college participation if the majority of students are not able to pass the exams to earn the college credit.

Addressing and designing education models that help more students both take and pass college-credit classes, whether at high schools or community and technical colleges, is a crucial step for helping Oregon to achieve its 40-40-20 plan. And while not sufficient on their own to achieve this goal, the initiatives spearheaded in SB 222 are definitely a step in the right direction.

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