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 or submitting work samples. This summer, the Oregon Legislature passed Senate Bill 744, which suspends the Essential Skills requirement for the classes of 2022, 2023 and 2024 to graduate, and orders a review of state graduation requirements. OPB education reporter Elizabeth Miller explains.

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The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. In June, the Oregon Legislature voted to change the requirements necessary for high school graduation. For the next three years, students won’t need to show proficiency in “essential learning skills” in order to get a high school diploma. The governor signed that bill a month later. It didn’t get that much attention. And then came a national deluge, especially from conservative commentators who said that the state was dumbing down its standards. But, OPB’s education reporter Elizabeth Miller says it’s actually more complicated than that. She joins us now. Liz, welcome back.

Elizabeth Miller: Thanks for having me.

Dave Miller: Let’s start with the way this was covered. Can you give us a sense for just how much national attention this got?

Elizabeth Miller: Yeah, it really did blow up around late July-early August, from editorials in local newspapers to an editorial in the Wall Street Journal. I mean, even Snopes, the fact checking website, weighed in. They rated the headlines and coverage as a mixture of fact and fiction. Mostly that the story, as it’s been told, lacks context, which was one of my reasons for writing a story too. The Daily Mail covered it, so I guess it was international news. And there were some right leaning news outlets that ran with it too, using it as another example of Oregon taking things too far in the name of equity, as they said.

Dave Miller: What was the gist of this coverage?

Elizabeth Miller: Let’s just talk about how it started. There were some grabby headlines about Oregon students not having to know how to read, write or do math to graduate. And it just kind of blew up from there. The Wall Street Journal headline, as you kind of alluded to in the beginning there, was “Dumbing Oregon Down.” And so there was this narrative that with this bill, the standards for graduating in Oregon are lower. And I just saw a headline this morning from an editorial that says Oregon lawmakers are now giving out participation trophies.

So something that caught my eye in all of the conversation last month was a post from the La Grande School District in Eastern Oregon, saying that they’ve been hearing from concerned parents and community about the bill, and how it would impact their graduates. La Grande Superintendent, George Mendoza, was asked about it by a local media outlet, EOAlive:

Brent Clapp: Are we going to be graduating dumber seniors now because of this? I mean, that’s the heart of the question.

George Mendoza: So I’ll start up then Scott can reinforce or add to anything. Senate Bill 744, it was not even on our radar. I would tell you that probably until about a month ago as well or even three weeks ago, we hadn’t had any deep conversation about it.

Dave Miller: Okay, so in other words, we’re seeing local conversations that echoed some of the questions being brought up nationally. So let’s back up for some context to understand what’s happened here. What was the essential skills requirement that’s now on hold for three years?

Elizabeth Miller: The essential skills requirement was put in place in 2008 to have Oregon students show their proficiency in several essential skills in order to graduate. And these are kind of broad skills, I mean they’re not things you learn in one year of a class or something. The first three have gotten the most attention: proving students can read and comprehend text, write clearly, and do math. But other essential skills include critical thinking, using technology, and demonstrating civic engagement. And so students either showed that proficiency by getting a set score on the standardized test, or by completing work samples. Senator Michael Dembrow was on the state Board of Education when essential skills were adopted. Now he chairs the Senate Education Committee, and he helped pass the new bill.

Michael Dembrow: The goal of having class projects, group projects, real world kinds of portfolios and things like that, turned out to be something that a number of districts had difficulty implementing. And so many of them just relied on using the existing standardized tests to determine that kids had the skills to graduate. And that was so far from what our thinking was at the time, or certainly my thinking.

Dave Miller: So what do we know about the effects that these requirements have had since they were put in place?

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Elizabeth Miller: Well, kind of following Senator Dembrow there, according to the Oregon Department of Education, students overwhelmingly used the assessment used tests to meet the essential skills requirement. The last time they were required, which was in 2019, only a small percentage, 12% in reading, 26% in math, used the work samples to fulfil the requirement. So you have a lot of students completing this requirement through tests.

But in talking to state representative Zach Hudson, who taught students with disabilities at Reynolds High School before he became a lawmaker, he found the work sample process was even difficult for some of his students.

Zach Hudson: It certainly wasn’t an easy or straightforward way to show mastery for many of the students whom I was working with. And I’d have students be very frustrated, 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.

Dave Miller: Have significant numbers of Oregon high schoolers not been graduating because they couldn’t demonstrate proficiency in these skills?

Elizabeth Miller: That was one of my questions for the Oregon Department of Education. And I didn’t get a firm answer, really. They just said it’s rare for essential skills to be the only reason students don’t graduate. For a school district example though, in La Grande, high school Principal Scott Carpenter told EOAlive, during that interview, that no student had ever not graduated because of not passing essential skills.

Dave Miller: So is it fair in your mind to call this a watering down of standards?

Elizabeth Miller: Standards is a tricky word. I mean if we’re talking about academic standards, this bill doesn’t change anything related to academic standards. Students still have to pass all of their classes to graduate. But the bill does take away a requirement to graduate, at least for the next three years. So technically, students have one less thing to do, one less thing to pass. Though the test will still be administered, they still have one less thing to pass to get to graduation. Whether passing that test matters kind of depends on who you ask.

Dave Miller: Why did proponents push for this bill?

Elizabeth Miller: They saw it as a chance to review Oregon’s requirements for graduation, and to see if that process, those requirements are adequate and equitable. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone upset that the state is reviewing these requirements, but I think the suspension of the essential skills requirement has really been the sticking point. One of my questions to lawmakers I spoke to for the story was “Is it typical to suspend the requirement while you study it?” To which, the answer generally was “not exactly.” But in the last two years because of COVID, the requirement had already been dropped. So the thinking seemed to be, let’s suspend it for a few more years until we figure out what works better.

Dave Miller: In an op-ed in the Statesmen Journal, Republican state Senator Fred Girod wrote “When we debated this measure in the Senate, Democrats said it was about racial equity. The Governor’s office said the same thing after she signed it. Those in the Governor’s office have yet to offer any evidence of how lowering learning standards for students of color will serve them in any serious way.” How have supporters of this change explained the connection between equity and getting rid of these demonstrations of proficiency in these essential skills?

Elizabeth Miller: When I asked the Oregon Department of Education a few questions about the bill and about essential skills, they shared with me how Oregon’s demographics have changed, from one third of students of color in the state when essential skills was adopted to 40% students of color, They said this bill creates a process for Oregon to come up with new graduation requirements that are inclusive of all of the state’s students. And that connection shows up in the actual language of the bill, asking the Department of Education to determine whether the requirements for high school diploma have been applied inequitably to different student populations.

Dave Miller: Is anyone arguing that these tests, because even though it doesn’t have to be a test, as you know earlier, that’s actually been the way that this has mainly worked out as opposed to work samples, are people arguing that these tests themselves are inequitable? The way we see those arguments for the SAT, for example?

Elizabeth Miller: I didn’t receive any data or research showing that standardized tests are inequitable for Oregon students. If you look at test results generally, both in Oregon and across the country, there tends to be a persistent gap in scores between different student groups. But I think the report from the Oregon Department of Education that’s kind of created by this bill will review state requirements, and can hopefully answer that question. But in a general sense, I did hear from folks that the tests can be a flawed way to show how students are doing, and it might not be a good measure for every student.

Dave Miller: Let me see if I can summarize this, and you can tell me if you agree. On the one hand, there are Democrats and state level education policymakers who decided to capitalize on the temporary suspension of these requirements to both extend that suspension and then see if there’s a better way to assess how high schoolers have done, and if they should get a diploma. And on the other hand, there are conservatives who correctly see the removal of a particular hoop that seniors had to jump through, and can credibly argue that that hoop was removed, and then are saying that this is a lowering of standards. Is that a fair way to put it?

Elizabeth Miller: I think it’s a fair way to put it, to say that this hoop has been removed for three years, because I think we’ll all be watching to see what happens in 2024. Will essential skills return? Will it look different? I think it’s definitely too soon to say. But for now I think that’s definitely a fair assessment of this conversation.

Dave Miller: What kinds of options are policymakers or educators talking about for what could replace these currently suspended requirements?

Elizabeth Miller: I’m curious to hear what educators think, because they’re sitting in the room with students. But asking lawmakers about it, one lawmaker I talked to advocated for testing a sample of students rather than everyone. Another lawmaker talked about relying on the assessment tools that teachers already use in their classrooms, talking about grades or GPAs or just tests in the class, things like that. But I think we’ll definitely be watching the Oregon Department of Education Report that’s supposed to come out September 2022, kind of giving

where we should go next when it comes to what high school graduation requirements look like for Oregon students.

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