Oregon's state board of education approved reducing instruction time requirements for thousands of high schoolers at its meeting Sept. 20.
What the board terms “flexibility” affects several groups. Seniors who have either earned all the credits they need to graduate, or who are on track to do so, can fall short of minimum instructional time.
Students taking accelerated courses – such as Advanced Placement, or International Baccalaureate – can also attend less than full time. The state board also exempted alternative high schools, often geared for students who’ve struggled in traditional high school.
The looser rules drew condemnation from Republican candidate for governor, Knute Buehler.
State board members are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state senate. Buehler told OPB the board members are going in the wrong direction by allowing many high schools to offer less class time. Buehler blames Gov. Kate Brown for the weaker rules.
“Ironically, she has said she is going to increase the school year and then the people who she has put into place to implement her policies does the opposite and lowers the bar for the school year," Buehler said.
"It’s a profound inconsistency.”
The state board's vote came on the same day that the Oregon Department of Education released state test scores, which were met with disappointment by state officials.
ODE and Brown’s office argued the instruction time decision shifts from an across-the-board approach to one tailored to individual students.
"Every student has individual needs to succeed, and the recent decision by the board gives districts the ability to support students on their individual paths to graduation, especially those who need the most time with their teachers," Gov. Brown's office wrote to OPB.
However, the new policy doesn't mandate increased instruction time for any high schoolers, though it maintains the rising expectations that were already in state rules.
The exemptions for certain student groups came as school districts were facing increased expectations for how many students had to attend school full time. State rules require that at least 92 percent of students district-wide had to be receiving the minimum instructional hours, and at least 80 percent at any individual school. Under Oregon law, high school students have to attend school the most: 990 hours for grades 9-11 and 966 hours for seniors.
A school administrators group lobbied for the change, arguing without the flexibility, schools would have to spend more on high schools at the expense of lower grades.
"Without additional flexibility, school districts may have to consider redistribution of resources currently expended on students who have not yet earned enough credits to graduate or from K-8 schools to high schools since there are often not additional funds to add classes without changing budget priorities," said Morgan Allen, on behalf of the Confederation of Oregon School Administrators.
The Oregon School Boards Association and Portland Public Schools also submitted testimony in favor of the change. Both argued that attending school for fewer hours could be the right approach for some high school students.
"Some students do not want to take eight classes as juniors," said PPS in a submitted presentation to the state board. "Even off track students may have legitimate reasons for not taking a full load."
However, two PPS board members, Julia Brim-Edwards and Mike Rosen, submitted testimony as private citizens, arguing against aspects of it. They were particularly critical of reducing instruction time requirements for seniors who are "on track," but haven't completed required credits, and for students enrolled in AP or IB courses. Both Brim-Edwards and Rosen were part of a complaint from parents over high school instruction time six years ago, when they were not on the PPS board.
The new policy change includes a provision allowing parents to demand a full school day for their high school-aged children.
"The school district must honor the request except as specifically provided for by rule or law," the adopted rules read.
But that opening for parents raised a red flag for school advocates concerned about equity. They argue that white, affluent parents tend to be more aware of opportunities to advocate for their children, than less wealthy parents of color.
Brim-Edwards' statement to the board questioned the lack of analysis into the impact on student groups that historically graduate at lower rates and tend to post lower scores on standardized tests.
"Your own Staff Report under the EQUITY IMPACT ANALYSIS [sic] says: 'Staff have been asked which students will be impacted by these proposed revisions to the instructional time rule. The Department does not have data that shows which students will be affected or how this proposal will impact historically underserved populations'[,]" Brim-Edwards wrote.
Board members ultimately adopted the change on a unanimous vote. But the non-voting representative from the Oregon Secretary of State's office, Kim Sordyl, opposed the changes. Sordyl, who acts as liaison from Republican Dennis Richardson, called the decision and the discussion that led to it "awful," in an email to OPB.