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Regional Interests

A closer look at Oregon’s decision to drop high school graduation ‘essential skill’ requiremen

Students pose for pictures on graduation day at Reynolds High School in Troutdale, Ore.
Students pose for pictures on graduation day at Reynolds High School in Troutdale, Ore.

Senate Bill 744 orders a review of state graduation requirements and suspends a requirement that Oregon students in the classes of 2022, 2023 and 2024 show proficiency in Essential Learning Skills in order to graduate.

The new law passed the Oregon Legislature back in June without much fanfare, with a handful of testimony both in favor and against the bill.

But about a month after its signing, newspaper articles and editorials started highlighting the bill, saying Oregon students don’t have to prove they can read, write, or do math anymore. It started in Oregon before blowing up to national and international coverage. Oregon House Minority leader Christine Drazen appeared on Fox News to talk about it. A Wall Street Journal editorial writes the bill is “Dumbing Oregon Down”.

Critics, many of them on the conservative side, called the bill a misguided attempt to support underserved students while lowering expectations for them.

“Politicians and school officials in Oregon are embarrassed that too many minority children fail tests designed to confirm they’ve mastered the ‘essential skills’ that high school is meant to teach,” said WSJ in its editorial. “So in the name of racial equity, they’ve now done the progressive thing.”

Even Snopes, the popular fact-checking website, weighed in.

The La Grande School District in Eastern Oregon posted on Facebook in early August, saying it had been receiving “calls from concerned community members” about the headlines and stories.

“District level assessments and state required assessments will continue to be implemented and monitored to ensure our students grow,” district officials shared in the post.

A couple of days later, La Grande’s superintendent and high school principal appeared in a Facebook Live video talking about the bill with EOAlive.TV.

“Are we going to be graduating dumber seniors because of this?” asked EOAlive’s Brent Clapp.

Laughing, Superintendent George Mendoza said he hadn’t even heard of the bill until this summer.

“It was not even on our radar ... probably until about a month ago as well, or even three weeks ago,” Mendoza said in the Aug.13 video. “We hadn’t had any deep conversations about it.”

La Grande High School Principal Scott Carpenter said the district had never had a student not graduate because they failed an “Essential Skills” requirement.

“If a student didn’t pass the essential skill — or meet the essential skill cut score using the Smarter Balanced assessment [state standardized test], then we would routinely have them engage in classes that would help them do work samples,” Carpenter said

The Oregon Department of Education echoed this, writing in an email to OPB that conversations with districts suggest it’s rare that this requirement is the “sole reason” students don’t graduate. ODE said it only collects data regarding how students meet the Essential Skills requirement, either through test scores or a portfolio of work samples.

Despite all of the media coverage and backlash to the legislation, there’s been little attention on what led to the change, and how it will impact Oregon students over the next three years.

From 2012 to 2019, in order to graduate with an Oregon diploma, students had to show proficiency in nine “Essential Skills” including reading, writing, math, critical thinking, technology usage, and civic and community engagement. Students showed that proficiency either by passing state standardized tests (mostly the Smarter Balanced assessment, or another approved test) or submitting work samples.

State Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, was serving on the State Board of Education when the board adopted Essential Skills in 2008.

“We were in the middle of looking at graduation requirements in all sorts of areas, and really focusing on trying to make education more relevant, putting more focus on applied education,” Dembrow said.

“So that students not only would have the math skills that allowed them to pass math tests, but could actually use those skills in the real world.”

But Dembrow said the execution of Essential Skills didn’t turn out the way he thought it would. Instead of having students apply what they learned through work samples, most districts relied on standardized tests to fulfill the requirement.

In 2019, the last year Essential Skills was required, students overwhelmingly used the state summative assessment or another approved standardized test over work samples. According to data from the Oregon Department of Education, 88% of reading essential skills, 77% of writing essential skills, and 73% of math essential skills were met through a standardized test.

“That was so far from what our thinking was at the time, or certainly my thinking,” Dembrow said.

Before Zach Hudson was elected to the Oregon House of Representatives in 2020, he taught in the special education department at Reynolds High School.

At Reynolds, he said students had access to both options — a test or work samples. Hudson said he’s not a “fan” of standardized tests because of the time out of the classroom, but he said the work sample process didn’t work as well for some of the students he worked with.

“It certainly wasn’t an easy or straightforward way to show mastery for many of the students whom I was working with,” Hudson said. “And I’d have students be very very stressed, for instance, because they knew the math, and could get the right answer, and yet they had difficulty writing a step-by-step explanation of how they got their answer.”

COVID-19 came to Oregon in March 2020, shutting down schools. Every state was permitted to skip standardized testing altogether in 2020 because of the pandemic. In 2021, testing returned, with Oregon receiving approval to scale back its standardized testing.

For both the Class of 2020 and the Class of 2021, the Oregon Department of Education suspended the Essential Skills requirement.

As the pandemic forced his classes online, Hudson agreed with the state’s decision to suspend the requirement for essential skills.

“It felt like a relief,” Hudson said. “I can’t speak for other teachers, but I believe that sentiment was probably pretty commonly shared.”

Senate Bill 744 was signed in July. Hudson and his fellow lawmakers, including Rep. Teresa Alonso Leon, D-Woodburn, said the pandemic presented an opportunity to take a look at what Oregon students needed to do to graduate.

“If we’re going to look at our graduation requirements, this is the time,” Rep. Alonso Leon said. “This is the time to really make that assessment, and look at it from an equitable standpoint. I don’t know if that was the lens that was used back in 2007.”

And rather than requiring the Essential Skills proficiency while it’s under review, lawmakers decided to continue the suspension.

“I would not have supported just suspending it in order to study it, but since it was going to be suspended anyway, it seemed like this gave us a good opportunity,” Dembrow said.

Dembrow, a former Portland Community College instructor, points to the higher education trend of universities no longer requiring standardized tests like the ACT and SAT.

Students will still have to pass all of their classes to earn the 24 credits towards graduation.

Hudson said removing Essential Skills does make it easier to graduate. But he said that doesn’t mean Oregon’s diploma is worth any less, or that students won’t be prepared for what comes after high school.

“The fact that we make something easier does not mean it’s less educationally valid, and the fact that something is more difficult for a student doesn’t mean they’ve demonstrated better learning,” Hudson said, cautioning against confusing important measures of learning with “a meaningless hoop to jump through.”

Hudson and the other legislators point to other states that don’t have testing requirements to graduate. According to the Education Commission of the States, Oregon is one of seventeen states with a non-course requirement to graduate.

Both lawmakers and ODE say rethinking graduation and diploma requirements is a matter of equity, and part of a broader effort to better support students from Oregon’s communities of color.

“Leaders from those communities have advocated time and again for equitable graduation standards, along with expanded learning opportunities and supports,” wrote ODE officials in a message to OPB.

While lawmakers did not share Oregon-specific data or information to show that standardized testing is inequitable for students of color, national studies and research bear that out. Oregon test results — much like results in states across the country — show a persistent gap between the scores of white students on standardized tests, and scores of students who are Black or Latino.

The Oregon Education Association, the statewide union representing educators, supported SB 744, saying the Essential Skills test can be a barrier to graduation for students.

The bill requires ODE to share what it finds out about graduation requirements in September 2022. In the meantime, a few legislators have ideas.

“There’s a test called the NAEP [National Assessment of Educational Progress],” said Sen. Lew Frederick, a Democrat representing Portland. “...They don’t give it to everybody, they give it to a sample of kids, and they’re able, by way of that sample, to understand just how some of those programs are going. And it gives you a high-level concept of what’s going on.”

Frederick mentioned the OAKS, or Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, test as an example of that. Oregon shifted away from that assessment a few years ago to move to Smarter Balanced. Frederick said whatever ODE officials land on, test results should be available to teachers immediately, something that doesn’t currently happen with SBAC results.

In a recent op-ed in the Statesman-Journal, Sen. Fred Girod, R-Salem and minority leader in the Senate, said suspending the Essential Skills requirement is a reform of the “wrong kind.”

“Without objective metrics, parents and policymakers won’t have important information for measuring educational progress,” he wrote in the article published Aug. 20.

Hudson, the former Reynolds High School teacher, is back in the classroom this fall, at Cedar Ridge Middle School in the Oregon Trail School District. He said teachers do have the metrics they need, via classroom grades and regular tests.

“How do you measure whether students can ‘do math?’ I’d say it really needs to be a holistic approach based on the teacher in the classroom, who gets to know the student over one or more years, and works with them on multiple measures of mastery,” Hudson said.

The short answer is, not much.

Oregon students still have to pass their high school classes and earn 24 credits to graduate. And after two years without across the board state tests, they’re coming back this year, with state summative assessments scheduled for early 2022. But with the removal of the Essential Skills requirement, high school students no longer have to reach a certain score, or turn in a portfolio of work samples.

Districts have already started sharing ODE’s notice form to alert parents.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting