The Oregon Department of Education recommends the state make big changes to high school graduation requirements, including ending a decades-old requirement to show proficiency in reading, writing and other skills on top of credit-bearing coursework in those subjects.
The department also recommends that the state offer one diploma, not three options, and add a requirement that students pass a planning course covering financial aid, resumes and other skills to help them in the future.
These recommendations were in a report on Thursday that will be discussed Sept. 21 by the Senate Committee on Education and follows a years-long review of state graduation standards ordered by the Legislature. It wanted the department to figure out whether state graduation standards were unfairly holding some students back and examine whether state graduation requirements were setting students up for life after high school.
The department decided requirements have hurt students of color and needed improvement.
State Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland and chair of the Senate committee, said the report marks the start of change.
“What we have before us is the end of the beginning,” Dembrow said. “This is the research work that we asked them to do and the State Board of Education will take the lead on addressing these.”
Graduation rates rise, but gaps remain
Overall, graduation rates in Oregon have been on the rise in recent years among all racial and ethnic groups and socio-economic levels.
In 2014, the on-time graduation rate among all students was about 72%, making it one of the lowest in the nation. By 2019, it was up more than 10%. The pandemic set that back slightly, to just over 80%, but that is still among the highest graduation rates the state has held.
Despite gains, gaps remain among student groups. In 2021, graduation rates for students from low-income families were about 10 percentage points below the state average.
Male students are still graduating at a lower rate than female students, and while the gap in graduation rates between white students and Black and Hispanic students has shrunk dramatically due to higher rates of graduation among the latter groups, graduation rates remain lowest among Native students and Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students. Among the reasons for this, the report said the methods used for the essential skills assessment were geared toward white cultural values and were not adequately measuring individual students’ knowledge.
Abandoning the skills assessment
When the state Board of Education a decade ago approved the essential skills assessment, it had a practical motivation, according to Dembrow, D-Portland, who was on the board when it passed.
He said the idea was to have students show they could apply their knowledge to real life situations.
Students were supposed to demonstrate a wide variety of skills: comprehension of different texts, being able to write clearly and accurately, math skills, listening skills, critical and analytical thinking, use of technology, civic and community engagement, global literacy and personal responsibility, management and teamwork. Schools could measure them through tests and writing samples or other methods they choose.
Instead, the skills have been assessed mostly from a state standardized test that Dembrow said was never supposed to be used to measure individual student levels. The Smarter Balanced test, or SBAC, measures competency in English, math and science among students across an entire district. It was meant to show which districts were behind, Dembrow said, not whether individual students had a grasp of essential skills. Dembrow said it ultimately gave the state bad data.
Due to the pandemic, in 2020 the state temporarily paused the skills requirement, prompting the Legislature to ask the Department of Education to review graduation requirements.
Today, students who want to graduate from high school need to earn 24 credits in language arts, social studies, math, arts, a second language, career and technical education, and health and physical education.
The Education Department also recommends ending the algebra I requirement and expanding the types of courses that would count toward a math credit. Current students need to pass algebra I and earn two credits beyond algebra I. In the recommendations, students could choose from a broader range of courses to fulfill the math requirement, including ones focused on statistics or finance.
The recommendation on the planning course would help students develop interviewing skills, write resumes, learn how to apply for federal financial aid for college and complete applications for postsecondary education such as technical schools and college.
Besides the standard diploma that most students receive, students can earn instead a modified diploma or an extended diploma. The modified and extended diplomas were created primarily for students with disabilities who have “demonstrated the inability to meet the full set of academic content standards for a high school diploma with reasonable modifications and accommodations.”
In its review, the Education Department found districts were disproportionately pushing students of color without learning disabilities toward the non-standard diplomas. It also found that students who earn a modified or extended diploma enroll in college at much lower rates than students who earn a standard diploma.
The department wants to kill the extended and modified diplomas while offering students multiple ways to achieve a standard diploma.
Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin, D-Corvallis and a member of the Senate Education Committee, proposed Oregon’s extended and modified diplomas, which were approved by the Legislature in 2007. She is infuriated by the recommendation to get rid of them.
“When we passed that bill, districts were making up their own alternative certifications” for students with learning disabilities, she said, rather than awarding them a state-sanctioned and federally recognized standard diploma.
In doing so, the schools denied students coursework required by the standard diploma, including classes in social studies and science. The extended and modified diplomas are federally recognized, and forced schools to provide students with equal opportunities and to help students with disabilities plan for graduation.
“This was transformative for students with disabilities,” she said. “We took kids earning as little as 12 credits in high school to the full 24 credits.” It also increased the number of students with disabilities who completed high school and attained diplomas, Gelser Blouin found when analyzing state data.
She said she would fight the recommendation to go back to one diploma. “Hold districts accountable” when they unjustly push students of color into non-standard diplomas, she said. “Don’t take away a tool that’s advantageous to another disadvantaged group in the system.”
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Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post. She previously worked in Iceland and Qatar and was a Fulbright scholar in Spain where she earned a master's degree in digital media. She's been a kayaking guide in Alaska, farmed on four continents and worked the night shift at several bakeries to support her reporting along the way.