Probably one of the boldest moves in recent years has been made in Oregon by allowing high school students to graduate without proving basic mastery of reading, writing, or math until at least 2029. This decision, unanimously reached by the state Board of Education, extends the pause on the controversial graduation requirement initiated in 2020.
The sentiment around this decision is mixed, with dozens of Oregonians advocating for the reinstatement of these standards. Former Republican gubernatorial candidate Christine Drazan expressed her opposition, emphasizing that lowering the standards devalues an Oregon diploma. The debate revolves around whether requiring students to demonstrate proficiency in standardized tests truly contributes to their post-high school success.
The Oregon Department of Education and state school board argue that these requirements disproportionately burden historically marginalized students and do not necessarily translate to meaningful improvements. Critics of the proficiency standards point to the lack of evidence showing a positive impact on the academic performance of Oregon high school graduates during their initial year in higher education.
The decision to suspend the requirement doesn't mean an end to assessments; state-mandated standardized tests will still be administered, but they won't determine a student's eligibility for graduation. The board emphasizes the inappropriate use of assessments, expressing concern that it created a harmful hurdle for certain student demographics.
However, some argue that pausing or eliminating graduation requirements without proposing more effective alternatives risks perpetuating the belief that Oregon is lowering expectations. Whitney Grubbs, Executive Director for Foundations for a Better Oregon, emphasizes the need for a plan to hold Oregon's education system accountable for supporting all students in meeting graduation requirements.
This decision is not without its challenges. Oregon lawmakers have mandated that families be informed annually about the option to opt their students out of state tests. Consequently, a third of high school juniors didn't take the tests last spring, leaving them and their families unaware of how they measure up against statewide academic standards.
The overarching goal of this move is to overhaul graduation standards, with the Oregon Department of Education recommending changes about a year ago. One of these recommendations is to eliminate the requirement for students to prove mastery of reading, writing, and math. However, state lawmakers have not acted on this proposal.
Dan Farley, Assistant Superintendent of Research and Data for the department, asserts that the academic mastery requirements did not work as intended. A 2021 analysis by Oregon’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission found no clear evidence that implementing the proficiency standards improved the performance of Oregon high school graduates during their first year of community college or university classes.
The decision to suspend these requirements until the class of 2029 gives the state more time for community outreach to determine the best way to overhaul graduation standards. Farley suggests that the extra time will also provide future high school students ample time to prepare if these standards do resume.
Despite the public sentiment largely favoring the retention of graduation requirements, the state Board of Education has chosen to continue down a path that it believes is in the best interest of Oregon students. The debate around this decision will likely persist as the state navigates the intricate terrain of balancing expectations and ensuring equity in education.