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Oregon suspends essential skills proficiency graduation requirement

Proponents argue it will help students struggling after a year of distance learning, while critics say it needlessly lowers the state's academic standards.

SALEM, Ore. — Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signed a bill in July suspending Oregon's essential skills graduation requirement for three years. 

Senate Bill 744 orders the Oregon Department of Education (ODE) to reassess the state requirements for high school diploma options and review the state requirements for demonstrating proficiency in a number of essential skills. It suspends the essential skills proficiency requirement entirely until the 2024-2025 school year. 

The ODE has until September 2022 to provide recommendations to the Oregon Legislature and Oregon Board of Education.

Proponents of the bill argued the requirement disproportionately hurt students who spoke English as a second language, or students who had poor test-taking skills.

Oregon follows a proficiency-based education model, which allows school districts more flexibility and additional options for students to prove they understand the material beyond just grades, credit hours and standardized testing. 

The Oregon Department of Education originally suspended the essential skills requirement temporarily during the pandemic as most Oregon students took classes from home. The bill extended that suspension an additional year. 

"We've had a year and a half now where kids haven't been in school, we've had a year and a half where they haven't been practicing their algebra, practicing their math, their reading skills, looking at science," said state Sen. Lew Frederick, a Democrat who represents parts of Portland and supports the bill. "Some of them have done very well. A lot of them have not." 

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Sen. Frederick, a former teacher, said it didn't make sense to continue to test students after a tumultuous year of distance learning. Prior to the requirement being suspended, however, students could demonstrate they were proficient in these skills through testing or in other ways, such as projects completed as part of the coursework, assessed by teachers using a state scoring guide. 

Sen. Frederick said the tests were poorly written and forced teachers to focus more on teaching students how to pass a test rather than assessing whether students truly understood the material. 

Essential skills for the 2021-2022 school year include:

  • Read and comprehend a variety of text
  • Write clearly and accurately
  • Apply mathematics in a variety of settings
  • Listen actively and speak clearly and coherently
  • Think critically and analytically
  • Use technology to learn, live and work
  • Demonstrate civic and community engagement
  • Demonstrate global literacy
  • Demonstrate personal management and teamwork skills

To graduate, Oregon also requires students to complete 24 course credits in subjects like English, math, science and social studies.  

The state does allow students who are unable to meet the full set of academic standards to graduate with a "modified" or "extended" diploma, or an alternative certificate. Those students "must have a documented history of an inability to maintain grade level achievement due to significant learning and instructional barriers, or a documented history of a medical condition that creates a barrier to achievement." Students working toward a modified diploma also had to fulfill the essential skills proficiency requirement. Most four-year colleges do not accept these alternate diplomas or certificates.

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In the legislature, votes on SB 744 were split mostly along party lines. Most Democrats supported the measure, while most Republicans criticized lowering the state's academic standards. Some members on both sides of the aisle crossed party lines in the vote. 

There has been wide criticism of the bill locally and nationally

Among the complaints is that some see no need to suspend the proficiency testing while ODE reassesses graduation requirements. 

"This is the first time we have seen this type of major statewide reduction in instruction," said Patrick Burk, an associate professor emeritus at Portland State University's College of Education. 

Burk said there is value in seeing assessments through that type of disruption so it can be viewed in context in the future. 

"I think in this particular case, we need to distinguish between responding to the pandemic and dismantling a system without the appropriate study and taking the feedback loops offline that teachers really need," Burk said.

Burk said teachers are well-equipped to figure out what students need going forward, but that can't begin until students return to the classroom this fall. 

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"Let's see this whole idea of 'learning loss.' That's an assumption — we don't know for sure. We need some assessment. We need some time in classrooms. You have the really experienced eye of teachers with kids who will begin to determine what their learning needs are," he said. 

Oregon does not require students to pass any standardized test to graduate. Burk said without independent assessment, the only way to assess student success is through grades, which fluctuate from teacher to teacher and set only a minimum bar. 

Sen. Frederick said it's not a black and white issue, and lifting the state requirement won't stop teachers from teaching and assessing these skills in the classroom. He said the state needs to take time to properly revise graduation requirements. 

Oregon has among the lowest graduation rates in the country, with a four-year graduation rate of 82.6% in 2020, though the state has made significant improvements over the last few years.

"I think we owe it to students and to their parents and guardians to provide them meaningful feedback on their level of preparation as they exit the system and move on," said Burk. 

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