Oregon scraps requirement for high school students to prove proficiency in math, reading and writing

The state of Oregon will no longer require its students to demonstrate proficiency in math, reading and writing in order to earn a high school diploma in a bid to bolster minority students.  

Gov. Kate Brown signed a bill late last month suspending the state’s ‘essential skills’ requirement for graduation for the next three years while its Department of Education seeks alternative graduation requirements.

The bill extended a suspension of the requirements that was put in place during the coronavirus pandemic.   

Proponents of the measure have said the state’s proficiency specifications hurt disadvantaged students, while opponents say suspending them lowers the state’s learning standards. 

Charles Boyle, a spokesman for Brown, said the suspension will benefit ‘Oregon’s black, Latino, Latina, Latinx, Indigenous, Asian, Pacific Islander, Tribal, and students of color’.

‘Leaders from those communities have advocated time and again for equitable graduation standards, along with expanded learning opportunities and supports,’ Boyle said. 

The bill, SB744, passed both chambers of Oregon’s Democrat-led Legislature in June, largely along party lines, with pushback from Republicans. 

It came as the US education system has come to a crossroads over how it approaches issues of race and equity, with fierce conflict over the teaching of critical race theory – a divisive academic movement that has driven a wedge in the nation’s education system in recent months.

With little fanfare Oregon Gov. Kate Brown late last month signed a bill into law that waives the requirement in the state that its student demonstrate proficiency in essential skills such as math, reading and writing in order to earn a diploma 

‘The approach for Senate Bill 744 is to, in fact, lower our expectations for our kids,’ State Minority Leader Christine Drazan told KATU upon the legislature’s vote in on the bill. 

‘This is the wrong time to do that, when we have had this year of social isolation and lost learning. It’s the wrong thing to do in this moment.’

Education non-profit Foundations for a Better Oregon says the law opens the door for more ‘equitable’ graduation requirements. 

‘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,’ the group said in a statement. 

Opponents of the bill such as state House Minority Leader Christine Drazan argue that it lowers learning standards in the state. Proponents, such as State Sen. Lew Frederick said waiving the requirements would help historically disadvantaged students that test poorly

‘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.’  

Brown signed the bill into law with little fanfare, and it was not entered into the state’s legislative database until July 29, 15 days after it was signed, the Oregonian noted. 

According to the bill’s language, the state’s Department of Education is directed to develop its new graduation standards with input from representatives for ‘historically underserved students,’ such as those with disabilities, those who are from immigrant or refugee populations or ‘racial or ethnic groups that have historically experienced academic disparities.’ 


The fight over critical race theory in schools has escalated in the United States over the last year.

The theory has sparked a fierce nationwide debate in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests around the country over the last year and the introduction of the 1619 Project.

The 1619 Project, which was published by the New York Times in 2019 to mark 400 years since the first enslaved Africans arrived on American shores, reframes American history by ‘placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the center of the US narrative’.

The debate surrounding critical race theory regards concerns that some children are being indoctrinated into thinking that white people are inherently racist or sexist.

Those against critical race theory have argued it reduces people to the categories of ‘privileged’ or ‘oppressed’ based on their skin color.

Supporters, however, say the theory is vital to eliminating racism because it examines the ways in which race influence American politics, culture and the law.

The outlet had come out in opposition against the bill, saying that under it, students in the state might go five years without proper graduation standards.

It urged Brown to veto it in an editorial. 

‘Oregon schools were among the last in the country to reopen to in-person instruction during the pandemic,’ the paper wrote. ‘Our legislators should be focused on how to help students regain the ground they’ve lost after a year and a half of distance learning and hybrid instruction – not on lowering our standards.’

The outlet also noted that much of the criticism of Oregon’s graduation standards centered around standardized testing. 

‘The testing that we’ve been doing in the past doesn’t tell us what we want to know,’ Oregon State Sen. Lew Frederick, a Democrat 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.’

But passing a test has not been a requirement to graduate in the state since 2009, when its essential skills standards were initially put in place. 

Students could demonstrate their abilities in math, reading and writing through five separate tests, or complete a classroom project judged by their individual teachers to prove their proficiency, the Oregonian reported.

In fact, only 11 states in the country require passing a test for high school students to graduate, according to Education Week.  

And some states that do, such as New York states have proposed removing testing requirements for graduation, according to Chalk Beat.  

So far, there haven’t been reports of school districts in the state going against the directive.

Scott Depew, administrator for schools in the Oregon city of Hermiston said he was happy to see the essential skills requirement go, according to the East Oregonian.

Although he said he didn’t find the requirements burdensome, he found them to be another hoop students would need to jump through to graduate.  

The law gives the state Department of Education until 2022 to come up with new graduation standards 

Matt Yoshioka, director of curriculum, instruction and assessment in the city of Pendleton told the East Oregonian said he agreed the essential learning skills requirement sometimes created issues for students that struggled with tests. 

The East Oregonian also came out against the bill in an editorial, writing: ‘It’s a laudable goal to improve Oregon’s graduation requirements. High school diplomas should have relevance; they should ensure the students who receive one have, during the preceding years, learned enough to pursue a productive life as an adult.’

‘But suspending such requirements, even for a few years, is more likely to hurt students, by awarding them diplomas that imply a level of education they haven’t actually attained.’

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