Blue State Halts Basic Skills Graduation Requirement Again, Cites Harm to Students of Color

Oregon high schoolers won’t need to demonstrate basic competency in writing, math, or reading to graduate for at least five more years because, according to education officials, the requirements disproportionately harm students of color and are unnecessary.

“At some point…our diploma is going to end up looking a lot more like a participation prize than an actual certificate that shows that someone actually is prepared to go pursue their best future,” said Christine Drazan, former Oregon gubernatorial candidate.

The essential skill requirement has been on pause since the Covid-19 pandemic. Last week, the Oregon State Board of Education voted unanimously to continue to suspend the graduation requirement through the 2027-2028 school year.

With the requirement, 11th graders had to demonstrate competence in essential subjects through work samples or standardized tests. Students who failed to meet expectations were required to take extra writing and math classes in their senior year — causing the students to miss an elective class — to graduate.

Board members said the standards harmed marginalized students and were unnecessary since higher rates of students with disabilities, students of color, and students learning English as a second language ended up having to take the extra step to prove they deserved a diploma, reported The Oregonian.

Hundreds of people submitted public comments urging the board to reinstate the standards and opposing the move. Several comments were generated from a call to action from Drazan’s advocacy group, A New Direction Oregon.

Guadalupe Martinez Zapata, board chair, previously described the opposition as a “campaign of misinformation” and “artistic quality mental acrobatics.”

“If only they weren’t automatically discredited by the myopic analysis and bigotry that follows them,” Martinez Zapata said in a meeting in late September, and added that “rhetoric about cultural and social norms being the underlying reason for underperformance on assessments by systemically marginalized students” was reminiscent of “racial superiority arguments.”

“It is not bigoted; it is not racist to want your student to be able actually to learn,” said Drazan, who ran for governor of Oregon last year. She lost to Democrat Tina Kotek by less than 4% of the vote.

Oregon has one of the lowest graduation rates

According to Oregon Public Broadcasting, Oregon has one of the lowest graduation rates but also has among the most rigorous requirements.

“I think there’s an assumption here that teachers are just graduating students who don’t have the necessary competencies, and I don’t know what the justification is for that,” said Senator Michael Dembrow to the Oregon Capital Chronicle. Dembrow was on the Board of Education in 2008 during the initial approval of the essential skills requirement.

However, Drazan argued Oregon is chipping away at standards across the board, with officials for the state mulling “equity grading” in place of a traditional A to F scale.

“They are now moving forward with an agenda that says if you cheat, you can’t be flunked. If you don’t show up, you don’t get a zero,” said Drazan. “They’re not going to have homework that they grade because having homework somehow they view as being inequitable.”

Drazan said concerned parents should plead their case to Governor Kotek’s office, which appoints education board members.

“She needs to make the board more responsive to the concerns of families, students, and stakeholders than they are at this point,” said Drazan.