New law removes ‘Essential Skills’ testing; ODE to revamp graduation rules

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Graduating seniors in Oregon no longer need to show proficiency in “Essential Skills” through a standardized test, but education officials say they haven’t scaled back the need for students to prove they know how to read, write and solve math problems.

“Since the Essential Skills law was passed by the legislature, I have never experienced a student who earned the required high school credits for graduation not pass the Essential Skills,” said Redmond Superintendent Charan Cline. “In my opinion, the suspension of the Essential Skills will make no difference in the successful preparation of students for college or career.”

Gov. Kate Brown quietly signed SB 744 last month, which pauses for three years the Essential Skills Tests and directs the Oregon Department of Education to review and revamp state requirements for a high school diploma.

“SB 744 gives us an opportunity to review our graduation requirements and make sure that any role that assessment plays in that process is sound,” said ODE Spokesman Marc Siegel. “In the meantime, it gives Oregon students and the education community a chance to regroup after a year and a half of disruption caused by the pandemic.”

Oregon seniors weren’t required to pass an exit exam to graduate per se.

But in addition to earning enough credits over four years in math, science and English/language art, they were required to show proficiency in Essential Skills by “earning at or above a cut score on one of the approved assessment options in their district” such as the ACT, SAT, and AP exams.

(Hundreds of colleges and universities have stopped requiring ACT or SAT tests for incoming freshmen.)

Students could also pass the Essential Skills tests by submitting work examples that showed they had mastered the basics.

“Senate Bill 744 does not remove Oregon’s graduation requirements, and it certainly does not remove any requirements that Oregon students learn essential skills,” Siegel said. “It does not change Oregon’s graduation statutes at all. SB 744 also does not amend or repeal academic content standards. It is misleading to conflate the subjects of standardized testing and graduation requirements.”

Oregon’s teachers’ union supported the bill and has been working for several years to get rid of the Essential Skills testing requirements.

The union said the tests “can act as a one-size-fits-all standardized test barrier to graduation for students who may otherwise have more than enough proficiency and skill to graduate and go on to great success.”

According to the legislative record of the bill, nearly all of the public comments during committee supported the measure.

“Now more than ever, any review of Oregon’s graduation requirements must include the perspective of communities who have been historically underserved and disproportionately impacted by inequities embedded in our current system,” said a statement from Oregon Partners for Education Justice, a community-based network of agencies that work toward social and racial equity.

“It’s critical that Oregon’s diploma requirements and proficiency assessments ensure all students—especially Black students, Indigenous students, students of color, students experiencing poverty, students with disabilities, and English Language Learners—have access to the unique social, emotional, and academic support they need to thrive,” the statement said.

Siegel said when Oregon’s current graduation standards were adopted in 2007, less than one-third of the state’s students were from communities of color.

Today that number is 40%.

“Leaders from those communities have advocated time and again for equitable graduation standards, along with expanded learning opportunities and supports,” he said. “SB 744 creates a process for Oregon to develop new graduation requirements, including the demonstration that students have learned essential skills, that are more inclusive and better reflect the learning of all students.”

Senate Republicans opposed the bill.

“Democrats figure that the best way to cover up their responsibility for decades of public education system failures is to trash all traditional standards of learning,” Senate Republican Leader Fred Girod (R-Lyons) said when the measure was introduced. “This bill tries to pull a fast one on Oregonians by allowing Democrats to claim victory for improving our education system. The reality is that this bill will artificially inflate graduation rates at the cost to our students’ futures.”

During the Education Committee’s public hearings, those who opposed the bill said it amounted to a “free pass” for Oregon students.

“I oppose SB 744 based on my desire to see all Oregon students graduate from high school based on a realistic and provable efficiency in all major areas of education,” said Todd Vaughn of Tiller. “To relax expectations (testing requirements) is nothing short of a recipe for future failure. If school closures have negatively impacted the educational development of current high-school students, let the test scores show it, and require the students to put in the extra work required to meet the current standards.”

Sen. Michael Dembrow of Portland and Rep. Alonso Leon of Woodburn – the Democratic chairs of the senate and house education committees respectively – penned an op-ed in the Oregonian when the bill passed saying there was a lot of misinformation about the intent of the measure.

“To say students will not have to prove they can write and do math to get a diploma is false and misleading to families and students,” the pair wrote. “We fully expect the state Board of Education to return with standards that are just as rigorous but much more relevant to the skills students really need today, not just skill in passing a standardized test.”

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