UMATILLA COUNTY — For the second straight year, local districts are working with incomplete report cards.

On Thursday, Oct. 7, the Oregon Department of Education released its report cards for every district in the state, but the COVID-19 pandemic influenced the 2020-21 school year enough that much of the data came with caveats. For instance, participation in state testing dropped across the state in light of the pandemic. If participation fell below a certain threshold in certain districts or among certain groups of students, the state either suppressed the data outright or advised people against comparing the data.

Matt Yoshioka, the curriculum instruction and assessment director for the Pendleton School District, said much of the data from the report card is unusable. He pointed to McKay Creek Elementary School, which reported more than 95% of its students qualified for free or reduced lunch after documenting a 41% pre-pandemic.

But Yoshioka said that boost was a result of the grant-funded universal free-lunch program the district operated during distance learning rather than a dramatic change in McKay Creek’s demographics.

“If you look at that, you would think that everyone is on welfare,” he said.

Yoshioka and other local administrators still are trying to glean relevant data from the report cards as they attempt to keep student performance on-track during COVID-19.

Districts try to keep freshman on track

One of the more important pieces of data the state releases each year is its ninth-grade on track for graduation rate. Using the number of credits a freshman has completed by the end of their first year in high school, the on-track rate can be fairly predictive of future graduation rate.

Hermiston’s 84% graduation rate was a bright spot in the 2019-20 school year, but Scott Depew, the director of secondary education for the Hermiston School District, said they’re already taking actions to keep that rate from backsliding.

Hermiston’s on-track rate for 2020-21 was only 72% and Hermiston now is using that statistic to identify credit-deficient students to get them back on track.

Pendleton’s on-track rate is 77%, only a few percentage points above the state average. Yoshioka said it’s not where the district wants it to be, but Pendleton has had success boosting the rate by the time those freshmen become seniors.

The Umatilla School District was another local success story in 2019-20 when it posted a 93% graduation rate, one of the highest in the county. So it came as a surprise to Umatilla Superintendent Heidi Sipe when the state showed a 51% on-track rate, the lowest in the county.

Sipe said 10 students were one-credit shy of meeting the on-track requirements, but the resulting boost to a 65% rate still is well below Umatilla’s past rates. Sipe attributed the decline to online learning and an ability for Spanish speakers to earn credits through a proficiency test, but anticipated the class would rebound in time for graduation.

“Last year, with so many students being online until February, a lot of students ended up being off-track as freshmen,” she said. “It does not necessarily mean it’s going to stay that way. It just means that is where they were.”

Attendance craters during pandemic

Attendance was another statistic Yoshioka was skeptical of.

Superficially, Pendleton’s attendance numbers don’t look good: The state reported less than two-thirds of the district’s students attended school regularly during the last school year. But during the pandemic, the state redefined what counted as attendance.

Yoshioka said a student didn’t need to log into class to be counted as attending during distance learning. Activities such as turning in assignments or having a conversation with a teacher were counted as attendance. Yoshioka said that meant there was no way to truly measure if a student was being completely exposed to instruction.

Even with all the caveats in mind, Depew said Hermiston wants to work at improving its attendance rate, especially in light of the report card, which showed more than 1 in 4 students were considered chronically absent.

Equity gap persistent

Nearly a year of distance learning tended to only cement the public school system’s inequities rather than cure them.

Pendleton’s ninth grade-on track for graduate rate hid a glaring disparity: American Indian students were 11 points below their white counterparts.

As in past years, Yoshioka said American Indian high school student performance is largely out of Pendleton’s hands. Most American Indian students in the area attend Nixyaawii Community School on the Umatilla Indian Reservation, a charter school that operates with its own administration and school board.

While most American Indian students attend schools in-town K-8, Yoshioka said the responsibility of addressing on-track rate lies with Nixyaawii.

In Hermiston, Depew was concerned about English language learners, where less than half are on track to graduate on time. Depew said its an area of focus for the district this year.

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East Oregonian reporter Erick Peterson contributed to this feature.

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