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As state’s top school official, Oregon’s next governor will face low achievement, changing grad requirements

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Kristyna Wentz-Graff
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OPB
The three women running to be Oregon's next governor have different goals and priorities for the state's public schools like Prescott Elementary School in Northeast Portland shown in this Feb. 8, 2022 file photo.

All three candidates want the Oregon Department of Education to do a better job holding school districts accountable for spending and student outcomes.

Oregon’s next governor will also serve as Oregon’s superintendent of schools. She will be able to appoint a deputy superintendent who will oversee the state’s Department of Education.

Oregon spends more of its general fund on education than anything else, though educators and the state’s Quality Education Commission say Oregon public schools continue to be underfunded.

Oregon’s three candidates for governor differ in their ideas for the future of education, and their endorsements offer a sense of that.

Tina Kotek, the Democrat endorsed by the Oregon Education Association and Stand For Children, is most aligned with school teachers and supporting public schools. Republican Christine Drazan is endorsed by the Oregon Moms Union, a conservative-leaning group formed during the pandemic, aimed at increasing parental involvement in education. Unaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson has not received any high-profile endorsements from education-related organizations. But Johnson has talked about how schools are “failing” and said she will make sure schools retain local control and include the voices of parents and teachers.

Recent assessment data shows Oregon student proficiency in English and math are down statewide, and national test results show Oregon achievement falling further during the pandemic than in many other states.

Leading candidates Drazan and Kotek both took to Twitter to react to the recent news of Oregon’s low student achievement. Drazan tweeted that Kotek and current governor, Kate Brown “threw Oregon students under the bus” and put “political interests” ahead of kids, while promising to help students if elected.

“I will work every single day to help ensure that students who have fallen behind are given the focused interventions they require to catch up and move forward,” Drazan shared in an Oct. 24 message.

Kotek responded to Drazan’s tweet by warning voters that her opponent would cut funding to public schools.

“I will hold our education system accountable for improving outcomes & delivering on the promises of the Student Success Act,” Kotek tweeted.

Next governor could change graduation requirements

The last several years have seen many changes to the state’s education system: from a historic new tax on businesses to fund the Student Success Act, to pandemic challenges including a rapid shift to online learning and intense staffing shortages. At the same time, public schools have dealt with polarizing politics related to COVID-19 and racial justice, as well as declining enrollment statewide.

As the state’s students and schools continue recovering from the pandemic, Oregon’s next governor has several large tasks at hand: among them, overseeing changing graduation requirements. The debate over what it takes to earn an Oregon diploma comes as state officials approach a deadline for students to reach a decade-old aspirational goal of 100% graduation by 2025.

Senate Bill 744 set in motion the changes to graduation requirements. The 2021 law required the Oregon Department of Education to produce a report detailing the state’s current requirements, comparisons to other states, and comments from Oregonians all over the state. Now that the report has been released, the next steps are up to the Governor, the Oregon State Board of Education, and the Legislature.

The bill also removed a graduation requirement that students prove they have mastered a set of “essential skills,” a move that has drawn criticism from many, including two of the three candidates for governor. Unaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson and Republican Christine Drazan voted no on SB 744 while in the Oregon Senate and House, respectively. Tina Kotek, former Oregon house speaker, voted yes.

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Kristyna Wentz-Graff
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OPB
From left: Republican candidate Christine Drazan, Democrat-turned-independent candidate Betsy Johnson and Democratic candidate Tina Kotek are all vying for the Oregon governor's office.


“Under Kate Brown and Tina Kotek, high school diplomas have turned into participation ribbons,” Johnson said in response to a survey from OPB.

“I voted against this misguided, detrimental policy.”

“Here’s what I won’t do: allow the Department of Education to continue to pursue permanent rules that lower the requirements for achieving a diploma,” said Drazan in her response to OPB

“Lowering standards cheapens the value of an Oregon education and sets our students up for failure in the real world.”

Kotek differed from Johnson and Drazan, arguing the essential skills requirement put too much emphasis on largely unpopular standardized tests, which most students often used to prove mastery of the skills.

“We don’t need to keep adding on more and more standardized testing beyond what is necessary to monitor student progress,” Kotek wrote. “We need to let teachers teach – and our students will benefit from more instructional time.”

The three candidates aren’t the only ones with differing opinions about Oregon’s changing graduation requirements. In talking to educators, superintendents, and board members in Oregon, their thinking differs too.

What do people working in education think?

Across the board, Oregonians working in education say high expectations should be expected for both students and staff.

“Watering down a diploma or lower[ing] expectations is not good for anyone,” wrote Newberg superintendent Stephen Phillips in an email to OPB. “ALL students need and deserve High Expectations from all school personnel.”

Gresham-Barlow school board chair Mayra Gomez, who also serves as the executive director for student and family services for the North Clackamas School District, said Oregon’s top officials haven’t given education the focus it needs.

“Our governor needs to make sure that all of our kids have high expectations, as well as our educators, but have the tools and the resources to meet those high expectations,” Gomez said.

“We’re the last area that our government focuses on.”

When the essential skills requirement was removed, critics of the state’s decision said Oregon’s educational system lacked rigor.

Umatilla School District Superintendent Heidi Sipe said those questioning the rigor of Oregon academics should instead look at the standards students are required to learn.

“No one is saying that the standards need to be reduced at all,” Sipe said. She said standards continue to be rigorous, citing growing expectations for middle school students as an example. “Students are taking Algebra 1 in middle school now,” she said.

Sipe argues that standards — the learning targets that students are expected to hit — should be the starting point for any discussion about education requirements.

“Those are the pieces that need to be reconsidered and discussed before anyone gets into a discussion about credits and testing and all the other things that become the noise of the discussion,” Sipe said.

When it comes to removing the essential skills assessment required for graduation, Sipe said students have already demonstrated essential skills by earning credits in their classes.

“I don’t necessarily think there’s a certain test that should be required if there’s standards set forth for the class,” she said.

Others think some sort of assessment is necessary, though it should be tailored to individual students.

“I don’t think it’s a one-size-fits-all,” said Sarah Cowan, social studies teacher and senior class advisor at North Salem High School. “We have so many kids at so many different levels.”

Gomez, in Gresham, said that she has never had a student not graduate because of the essential skills requirement, but “I don’t think it was necessary to remove that skill,” she said.

“I do believe in the wisdom of an essential skills assessment tool of some kind,” said Phillips, the Newberg superintendent. “That could differ and change depending on the specialization that the student depends upon.”

For future graduates, Phillips and others say there are ways other than standardized tests to assess what a student has learned in school — ways that may better correlate to future plans.

Michelle Buyas is a counselor on special assignment for the Hillsboro School District. She said some kind of portfolio may be a better assessment of what a student has learned over their school careers.

“It’s great to have some kind of culmination of, ‘this is what my experience has been, this is what my education has brought me to, and here’s what I can demonstrate because of it,’ but I don’t think that every student needs to demonstrate that the same way,” Buyas said.

“I think if we do it that way, you’re actually creating barriers to kids who have really unique strengths and things that could lead to really great qualities and opportunities for them.”

When it comes to graduating students, educators said state officials need to think about the goal for students once they graduate from Oregon schools, and make sure they have what they need to meet those goals and succeed as adults.

“We’re not just focusing on this academic — math, literacy, science — that piece of them,” Buyas said. “We want to create citizens that are functional in our society.”

With regard to Senate Bill 744 specifically, Umatilla superintendent Sipe hopes Oregon’s next governor looks at the feedback from community members across the state before making decisions.

“Listen to what they said, then take a look at what maybe needs to happen. And then that’s fair. But don’t disregard the voices that took the time to share their thoughts, because far too often that’s what happens,” Sipe said.

Cowan asks that current teachers and counselors be a part of the conversation going forward, and that schools start earlier in preparing students for graduation.

Others, including Buyas, want to make sure schools have the resources necessary to meet the needs of their students.

“It’s really hard to take in the higher needs that students and families are bringing to school and to school communities, and raise the bar, when we’re kind of working with the same resources … [as] 10, 20 years ago.”

Though Oregon schools have been funded at record levels in recent years, school and district officials continue to say cuts are possible, especially in districts with declining enrollment. And while school districts are receiving millions of dollars in federal COVID relief funds, that money must be spent by September 2024. The statewide Student Success Act provides ongoing funding, but there are limits to how districts can spend the money.

Accountability for spending, student achievement also on candidates minds

As assessment results show Oregon students falling behind their peers nationally, a state audit published earlier this year found there should be more oversight and accountability on Oregon school spending and academic performance.

All three candidates agree that there should be better accountability for how tax dollars are spent in schools.

Drazan said she would audit the Oregon Department of Education to make sure funds are being spent effectively.

“We are spending more money on public education than ever before, yet our graduation rates remain among the worst in the country,” Drazan said.

“As Governor and the Superintendent of Public Instruction, I will work with the State Board of Education and direct the Oregon Department of Education to hold school districts accountable to the [Student Success] Act’s requirements with more transparent data about student outcomes, stronger monitoring, and additional support for struggling districts,” Kotek shared.

Additionally, Kotek stated a goal to improve Oregon’s graduation rate to “90% for all student groups by 2027.” Currently the state’s four-year graduation rate is 81%. The long-term goal that Oregon set in 2011 called for 100% of students to earn a diploma or equivalent starting in 2025.

Neither Drazan nor Johnson have set specific graduation targets for Oregon schools.

Drazan’s goal is to “improve our graduation rate every year that I am in office.”

“Under Governor Johnson, when we direct funds to our schools, we will know where it is going and whether it’s being used effectively and efficiently,” Johnson wrote.

Johnson said she will also give Oregon parents more options outside of public schools, “including charter schools, home schooling, and other alternative education opportunities such as career and technical education opportunities.”

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Elizabeth Miller