Does Oregon Allow H.S. Students to Graduate Without Proof of Reading, Math Proficiency?

In August 2021, news outlets and commentators reacted with outrage to Gov. Kate Brown's signing of Senate Bill 744 — but they failed to mention some key context.

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Claim

Oregon Senate Bill 744, signed into law in July 2021, allows students to graduate from high school without having to prove they can read, write, or do math.

Rating

What's True

SB 744 extended the temporary suspension of Oregon's Essential Learning Skills prerequisite, meaning that until 2024 at the earliest, high school students do not have to pass standardized tests in several academic skill areas in order to obtain a high school diploma.

What's False

SB 744 did not alter or remove the existing and continued requirement, in state law, that Oregonian high school students must obtain at least 24 credits, including in English, mathematics and science classes, in order to get a high school diploma — a less standardized but still substantial form of de facto proof that a given student possesses many of the same basic academic competencies in question.

Origin

In August 2021, several outlets reported that Oregon’s Democratic Gov. Kate Brown had signed a law that removes the requirement for high school students in the state to prove their proficiency in reading, writing, and mathematics, as a prerequisite to graduation.

For example, on Aug. 6 The Oregonian published an article whose headline claimed that “Gov. Kate Brown signed a law to allow Oregon students to graduate without proving they can write or do math,” and added:

For the next five years, an Oregon high school diploma will be no guarantee that the student who earned it can read, write or do math at a high school level. Gov. Kate Brown had demurred earlier this summer regarding whether she supported the plan passed by the Oregon Legislature to drop the requirement that students demonstrate they have achieved those essential skills. But on July 14, the governor signed Senate Bill 744 into law.

Similarly, the right-leaning Post Millenial website published an article with the headline “Oregon Governor signs new law allowing students to graduate without proving they can read, write, or do math,” while the Daily Mail‘s headline asserted that “Oregon Gov Kate Brown scraps need for high school students to prove proficiency in math, reading and writing to get diploma …”

Those reports correctly pointed out that the legislation in question temporarily suspended the practice of requiring would-be high school graduates to demonstrate their proficiency in basic academic skills, through standardized tests. However, they overlooked the fact that students in Oregon would still be required to pass multiple classes in those same skill areas, like math, reading and writing, in order to graduate. 

This gave readers the grossly misleading impression that Oregon had largely abandoned the academic rigor required to graduate from high school. Although the bill temporarily lifted the requirement to pass a standardized proficiency test, high school graduates would continue, in effect, to have to demonstrate the same basic academic competencies in question. We are therefore issuing a rating of “Mixture.”

What SB 744 changes (and Doesn’t Change)

Oregon Senate Bill 744 was introduced on Feb. 4, 2021, passed by the Senate on April 21, passed with amendments by the House on June 14, passed a second time by the Senate on June 16, and signed into law by Brown on July 14. The legislation can be read in full here. It has three principle effects:

  • It orders the Department of Education (DOE) to conduct a review of the statutory prerequisites for obtaining a high school diploma in Oregon (including diploma options such as the “modified diploma,” “extended diploma” and “alternative certificate”), and to make recommendations by September 2021
  • It orders the DOE to conduct a review of statewide requirements for demonstrating proficiency in academic areas, with an emphasis on Essential Learning Skills, and to make recommendations by September 2021
  • It suspends, until the end of the 2023/24 academic year, Essential Learning Skills as a prerequisite for graduation where a student has otherwise met the credit requirements for obtaining a diploma.

Oregon state law requires that, in order to obtain a high school diploma, students must obtain at least 24 credits between grades nine and 12, including: at least three credits in math; at least four credits in English; three in science; and three in social science, among other prerequisites. In order to obtain those credits, a student is required to achieve at least a passing grade in each class. SB 744 will not change or remove those requirements. 

Although not codified in the same way as a standardized test, passing all those classes and obtaining the 24 credits required to get a high school diploma can quite reasonably be regarded as de facto proof that a student possesses the basic academic competencies at the heart of media coverage of SB 744 in August 2021.

Since 2009, Oregon had also implemented Essential Learning Skills requirements for graduation. Those essential skills are outlined here, and include the ability to: “read and comprehend a variety of text”; “write clearly and accurately”; “apply mathematics in a variety of settings”; as well as critical thinking, using technology, and other skills. 

In order to test a given student’s proficiency in those skill areas, school districts in Oregon have historically been required to implement “local performance assessments,” i.e., standardized tests. 

However, in 2020, in light of the disruption brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, Oregon obtained a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education that allowed for the suspension of Essential Learning Skills as a prerequisite for graduation.

That waiver was in place for the 2019-20 and 2020-21 academic years, and SB 744 would extend that existing suspension of the Essential Learning Skills requirement for a further three years until the summer of 2024.

The long-term future of the Essential Learning Skills prerequisite will likely depend on the recommendations made by the DOE in the reviews ordered by SB 744, but the existing 24-credit requirement for obtaining a high school diploma remains untouched — a key fact overlooked in much of the most outraged reaction to the legislation.