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Is Oregon Dumbing Down the Reading and Math Requirements to Graduate from High School?

U.S. Falls Further Behind Other Countries in Assessment Results

You may have heard that Oregon Governor Kate Brown privately signed a bill last month ending the requirement for high school students to prove proficiency in reading, writing, and arithmetic before graduation. To say this is a controversial decision is an understatement. It makes me wonder whether the Governor and state legislature have the best interests of high school students in mind or are they simply providing a lesser path to graduation for Oregon's "Black, Latino, Latinx, Indigenous, Asian, Pacific Islander, Tribal, and students of color."


Brown, a Democrat, did not hold a public signing or issue a press release regarding the passing of Senate Bill 744 on July 14, and the measure, which was approved by lawmakers in June, was not added into the state's legislative database until more than two weeks later on July 29, an unusually quiet approach to enacting legislation, according to the Oregonian.  

According to Charles Boyle, a spokesman for the governor, "SB 744 gives us an opportunity to review our graduation requirements and make sure our assessments can truly assess all students’ learning. "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."

The bill, which suspends the proficiency requirements for students for three years, has attracted controversy for at least temporarily suspending academic standards amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Backers argued the existing proficiency levels for math and reading presented an unfair challenge for students who do not test well, and Boyle said the new standards for graduation would aid Oregon's "Black, Latino, Latinx, Indigenous, Asian, Pacific Islander, Tribal, and students of color."

This is an outrageous statement that implies a group of students are inherently less qualified to graduate from high school. It also begs the question whether it can be objectively determined that a group of students do not test well because of the test rather than their learning opportunities or work ethic. Isn’t it possible that they attend inferior schools with less qualified teachers?

How to Assess Learning

"The testing that we've been doing in the past doesn't tell us what we want to know," Democratic Sen. Lew Frederick told a local ABC affiliate in June. "We have been relying on tests that have been, frankly, very flawed and relying too much on them so that we aren't really helping the students or the teachers or the community."

What is it that they want to know? If not the reading and math proficiencies, what should take its place? It seems the answer is nothing – just lower the bar for graduation. Oregon needs to clarify what they want to measure and why. Traditionally, the goal was to assess whether education and assessment testing helps to prepare high school students for college and excel in college.

While some lawmakers argued against standardized testing for skill evaluation, the state of Oregon does not list any particular test as a requirement for earning a diploma, with the Department of Education saying only that "students will need to successfully complete the credit requirements, demonstrate proficiency in the Essential Skills, and meet the personalized learning requirements."  What are these "Essential Sills" and who defines them? This is vague at best and misleading at worst. Assessment

Are There Better Options?

It can be argued that by lowering the standards for graduation, ostensibly because minority groups can’t keep up, the governor and state legislature is insulting those minority groups. They are saying that these groups are not as capable as whites. Rather than raising the standards for all, or at least leaving them in place, the state is setting the bar too low and rationalizing it based on deficiencies in testing and learning. I wonder what will happen to these kids when they enter college where the requirements are less forgiving.

Oregon needs to look at the problem they believe exists – a disparity in learning outcomes –in different ways. Perhaps the governor and state legislature should look for a better, long-term fix, assuming they believe minority students are not afforded the same educational opportunities as whites.

How about allowing parents the choice where their kids should go to school. This could include charter schools, which are public schools not governed by a local school board but by an independent board. Given our recent experience with schools remaining closed for most of the pandemic, I don’t think most school boards generally have the best interests of high school students in mind. An independent board is likely to be better qualified for their position and make decisions based solely on the best interests of students.  

Formal Assessment of Student Learning

By focusing on eliminating standards, Oregon is closing its eyes to the real problem in education in the U.S. The Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, is an international assessment administered every three years that measures what 15-year-old students have learned in math, reading and science. The last assessment was in 2018 and the results are alarming.

U.S. students performed slightly above average in reading and science, and slightly below average in mathematics and showed no significant improvement or decline since 2000 in reading, 2003 in math and 2006 in science.

Most troubling to researchers is that 30 countries scored higher than U.S. students in math and that the performance gap between top-performing and lower-performing students is widening, especially in reading.

Oregon seems to be ignoring these results. It is a problem for the competitiveness of our students both in the near term and the future. I fear that we will fall further behind countries like China that have higher scores in mathematics and science and increasing scores in reading. This is what is most important in measuring educational achievement, not setting a lesser standard for some groups based on the perception that the assessments are flawed.

Posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, The Ethics Sage, on August 11, 2021. Steve is the author of Beyond Happiness and Meaning: Transforming Your Life Through Ethical Behavior. You can sign up for his newsletter and learn more about his activities at: Follow him on Facebook at: and on Twitter at: