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By Ian K. Kullgren January 4, 2013

Did the graduation rate in the Portland area jump by 5.5 percentage points last year?

With his term officially over, Sam Adams took some time to look back at his tenure as Portland mayor. In a newsletter, he recapped what he said were his biggest accomplishments -- from arts and transportation to economic development and education.

The education category caught our attention -- in part because the mayor has little control over the way public schools operate.

In the introduction to his term-in-review, Adams said the city is now on track to greatly increase the graduation rate in high schools over the next few years, thanks to a trend that began while he was in office.

"Last year," he wrote, "the graduation rate for our combined six-district footprint jumped 5.5 percent (from 56.8 percent to 62.3 percent)."

We wondered whether he had that last bit right.

Portland City Hall reporter Brad Schmidt forwarded us correspondence with Adams’ former spokeswoman Caryn Brooks, who noted that their source was All Hands Raised, an education nonprofit.

All Hands Raised analyzed data from the Oregon Department of Education and found that the percentage of students graduating on time rose to 62.3 percent in the most recent data from 56.8 percent the year before -- an increase of 5.5 percentage points.

(Now, wonks among us will note that the actual percentage increase is roughly 9.7 and that Adams should have said percentage points. But we’re going to let that go because he included both years’ graduation rates. It’s clear what he meant.)

The numbers aren’t wrong -- but there’s a big caveat: The 5.5 point increase may not be as robust as it appears.

Last January, Portland Public Schools announced a 5 percentage point increase in its graduation rate from the 2009-10 school year to the 2010-11 school year. It was an eye-popping improvement for any district, but especially for Portland, which has one of the lowest rates in the state.

The problem, though, as The Oregonian’s education reporter Betsy Hammond discovered, was that "most of the gain is due to deeper digging through old records, not new techniques teachers and counselors used with students."

The district, it turned out, had not been closely tracking students that transferred and had been counting them as dropouts. After the class of 2011 graduated, Hammond reported, the district's manager of state reporting "asked principals to dig through paper files to check whether students whose electronic records indicated they were dropouts in fact had transferred away."

The principals found that was the case for hundreds of students and documented the transfers. That raised the 2011 graduation rate substantially and gave an artificially rosy picture of the district's year-over-year improvement. Hammond calculated that "better handling of paperwork accounted for 3 percentage points of that 5-point gain."

In May 2012, Portland Public went back and dug deeper into both the 2011 and 2010 graduation data. The state was convinced by the district's new evidence and revised upward Portland's graduation rate for both years. Those higher figures are the ones All Hands Raised used in their analysis. However, the size of the year-to-year increase is likely inflated because it was easier to track down accurate information about the 2011 graduates than the 2010 graduates. Basically, it's hard to say how much of the increase is better paperwork and how much is genuine improvement in graduating students.

We spoke with Nate Waas Shull at All Hands Raised and asked him if his organization knew how much of the area-wide increase was due to the improved paperwork. "There's no way to know," he said. "That would be a pretty complex study."

Still, he said, it certainly had something to do with the recent improvement. "My sense is that, across the board, every district has become motivated to really know, to no longer let kids disappear. Districts are tracking students down."

We called and emailed Adams’ temporary spokeswoman for comment but never heard back.
We did get Amy Ruiz, Adams’ chief of staff, on the phone. She said simply that improving graduation rates takes time.

In reviewing his tenure as Portland mayor, Sam Adams said that the city was well on its way to improving graduation rates. Last year alone, he said, "the graduation rate for our combined six-district footprint jumped 5.5% (from 56.8% to 62.3%)."

We checked Adam’s figure and found that it relied on graduation statistics that benefited from, at least in part, better record keeping and not just better student retention. Waas Shull at All Hands Raised said as much. That’s an important detail.

We rate this claim Half True.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

Interview with Nate Waas Shull, vice president of partnerships for All Hands Raised, Dec. 28, 2012

Interview with Amy Ruiz, chief of staff to Sam Adams, Dec. 31, 2012

Sam Adams, Term Review, Dec. 20, 2012

Oregon Department of Education, graduation statistics, Dec. 28, 2012

Interview with Matt Shelby, spokesman for Portland Public Schools, Jan. 4, 2013

The Oregonian, "Better paperwork was the main factor …," March 11, 2012

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