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Oregon is removing a requirement for high school students to show ‘essential skills’ before graduating

Last week, the Oregon Department of Education unanimously voted to remove a requirement for Oregon high schoolers to demonstrate basic mastery in reading, writing, and mathematics in order to graduate. The requirement, which was most often met using students’ standardized test results, has been paused since 2020.

According to state documents, the “Assessment of Essential Skills” benchmark is typically met when a student meets a cutoff score in a statewide standardized test, though alternatives can be used for students who opt out of the test, such as samples of classroom work or scores from other tests like the SAT or ACT.

While score cutoffs have been unavailable since the pause in 2020, a state guide from the 2016-2017 school year lists the cutoff for one popular test, the Smarter Balanced test, which student take in their 11th grade year, as a score of 2515 for reading and 2543 for math. Based on score percentile data from 2017-2018, assessments would put those scores roughly in the 25th and 45th percentiles respectively (assuming no major changes in student performance over one year). 

While the math cutoff in particular might seem high, both ranges would barely put test takers just a few points into the “Level 2” range in Smarter Balanced’s 4-level scoring range. Level 2 scores are defined by the testing organization as meaning that a student has a “partial understanding of and ability to apply the knowledge and skills associated with college content readiness,” adding that a student in this level would need “support” to be ready for college.

While not every high school graduate can or should go to college, if a high school student can’t even demonstrate “partial” understanding of the subject matter of their classes, letting them continue on to their senior year and graduate high school without additional intervention is clearly irresponsible.

However, critics have framed the extra remediation many low-performing Oregon students receive as damaging. Department of Education officials opposed the policy in part because “higher rates of students of color, students learning English as a second language and students with disabilities ended up having to take intensive senior-year writing and math classes,” extra remediation that “denied those students the opportunity to take an elective,” according to The Oregonian

Valuing electives over basic skills seems like a strange set of priorities. Ensuring that students graduate with basic academic competencies should surely take precedence over their ability to take an elective course.

The strongest evidence supporting ditching the competency requirement is a 2021 report from the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Committee, which found that the additional requirement didn’t lead to improved outcomes for Oregon students in their first year of community college or 4-year university. 

However, this isn’t necessarily the slam dunk supporters of removing the standard think it is. The existing benchmarks only ask students to prove basic mastery of reading, writing, and math. Students who fail to meet those standards—and are thus flagged for extra help—are definitionally struggling with simple high school concepts. And if you’re struggling to grasp high school-level instruction, you’re probably not going to be enrolling in college after graduation.

This is something that the report itself acknowledges. “Potential reasons for the lack of findings include the level of skill demonstrated being too low to improve postsecondary outcomes,” the report’s executive summary reads.

Removing Oregon’s Assessment of Essential Skills requirement could make it even harder to identify which students need extra help before graduating. By removing an objective measure of student achievement—especially when compared to ever-inflating student GPA—high school graduation in Oregon risks becoming functionally meaningless as a measure of educational attainment. 

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