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Doing the Right Thing

Some of the national and local headlines have been unfortunate, misleading and just plain false. And the lack of fanfare and comment carries the taint of political cowardice that doesn’t reassure or calm the pundits.

That said, the passage of Oregon Senate Bill 744 was the right thing to do.

Oregon Governor Kate Brown quietly signed SB 744 into law on July 14, 2021, following its passage by the legislature in June. Their was no signing ceremony. There was no press conference or invitation to the media, or the public, to commemorate doing the right thing. Heck, the Governor’s office didn’t even issue a press release. I’ll give the naysayers a point on this one because the lack of fanfare seems a bit, well, odd. If it’s the right thing to do for kids, if it allows an opportunity to examine, and perhaps reinvent Oregon’s education system, why keep the curtains closed? Only the Governor can speak to the wisdom of that strategy.

Once the secret got out, the misinformed had a field day. The headline in the Washington Post on August 10th read: “Oregon Governor signs bill ending reading and math proficiency requirements for graduation.” The advocacy group Oregonians for Liberty in Education published their take on the matter with this headline: “Oregon’s Education Gamble: Lawmakers Say Students No Longer Need Essential Skills.”

If either of these headlines represented an accurate description of the facts, we all would have just cause to be up in arms. But, they don’t and we need to take a moment to peek under the tent flap to understand the reasoning, and in my opinion, the wisdom, of this legislation. Let’s look at some common assumptions and dilemmas.

What is a diploma? A diploma is a document that is conferred on students who have met the specific graduation requirements of their state. These usually involve the accumulation of a minimum number of credits, sprinkled among courses that are both required and elective. Traditionally, to earn a credit implies that the student participated in a content area for a specific period of time. If their resulting grade constitutes a “pass,” the credit is given. Seems simple enough, so what’s the issue?

Our current grading system will award the same credit to anyone who passes the requirements of the course, whether exceptionally or barely, and all points in between. So my final “D” grade receives the same status as your “A.” We both get the credit.

The problem is bigger than that. What can we interpret from that letter grade? Does my “D” suggest that I learned a little bit and your “A” guarantees that you mastered the content? Or did you receive your grade for completing all of the assignments on time and attending class regularly, while I submitted sub-par work when I occasioned to show up at all. The hard truth is that our two grades divulge precious little about what we actually learned and can apply from the experience. They may not be indicators of academic success at all.

A diploma, and its accompanying transcript, don’t tell a reliable story other than to commemorate the conclusion of a journey.

Enter Essential Skills. Post-secondary admissions officers and potential employers chafed at the unreliability of the diploma story. Who are these kids? They got good grades but require course remediation at the university. What do they really know?

What can I truly count on as qualifications, based on these documents?

To offer some degree of reassurance, the Essential Skills graduation requirement was adopted in 2008. Satisfaction of this requirement was initially focused on achieving an acceptable score on standardized tests in reading, writing and mathematics. It didn’t take long to realize that success on these assessments was as much a function of test-taking skills as they were a reflection of proficiency. And it became clear, as the data was disaggregated for specific student populations, that this testing approach was underestimating the abilities of some groups of students. Accommodations were authorized at the state level for local jurisdictions to design alternate ways for students to accurately demonstrate their abilities, in lieu of testing, as needed.

Then, in the spring of 2019, the pandemic hit and closed everything down, including the Essential Skills requirement for graduation. It became increasingly clear that satisfying this requirement was too cumbersome and unreliable if done remotely and, in the end, disadvantaged many students.

SB 744. This legislation doesn’t lower academic expectations. It also doesn’t end or eliminate anything. Rather, it extends the pandemic pause for a period of three years to accomplish some very important tasks. As reported by the ABC news affiliate in Portland, Oregon, KATU: “SB 744 directs the state Department of Education to use the suspension to evaluate how Oregon assesses student knowledge in their pursuit of a diploma. Among other things, education leaders are tasked with comparing diploma requirements in different states, making recommendations for state requirements to reduce disparities, and determining whether requirements for diplomas have been applied inequitably to different student populations.”

In other words, SB 744 allows the state to do what must be done, for the welfare of its children, to improve its practices while bringing those practices and expectations into the 21st century. It affords an acknowledgement that we have a flawed system that is worthy of examination. Why? Because what we’ve been doing isn’t working.

“The testing that we’ve been doing in the past doesn’t tell us what we want to know,” Senator Lew Frederick, D-Portland told KATU. “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. The approach that we’ve taken in the recent past is that we are going to test students as much as possible and that’s supposed to help us understand what we’re doing. But, the tests don’t do that.”

I open my book, The Education Kids Deserve, with a quote by Tony Wagner from his 2008 publication The Global Achievement Gap: “Teaching all students to think and be curious is much more that a technical problem for which educators, alone, are accountable. More professional development for teachers and better textbooks and tests, though necessary, are insufficient as solutions. The problem goes much deeper - to the very way we conceive of the purpose and experience of schooling and what we expect our high school graduates to know and be able to do.” (Emphasis added.)

That, my readers who may or may not agree with me, is exactly what SB 744 aims to accomplish. With any luck, and with a lot of hard work and soul searching, we may very well see significant improvements in the education experience for all Oregon students by the end of this three year pause. As Foundations for a Better Oregon said in their supporting statement, "With SB 744, Oregon can ensure high school diplomas are rigorous, relevant, and truly reflect what every student needs to thrive in the 21st century. An inclusive and equitable review of graduation and proficiency requirements, when guided by data and grounded in a commitment to every student’s success, will promote shared accountability and foster a more just Oregon."

Amen to that. It’s the right thing to do.


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