Oregon appears to have suspended the "basic skills" requirement for graduation; see this. What will be the effect of this on the mathematical proficiency of the graduating class?

Follow-up question: I noticed a piece of information at the news item Oregon Moms. Apparently part of the reason for the suppression of the requirements is the fact that the results of the tests can allegedly be predicted by the socio-economic status of the family, and therefore "basically racist" (term used by Farley). I am wondering what can be predicted here exactly: the individual scores of each student (seems unlikely), or rather the average computed per minority?

Question concerning constitutionality: The reasoning behind the suppression of the requirements can be summarized as follows: since minorities will fail such tests, the tests are unfair and therefore it is preferable that everybody should fail (in the sense of the diplomas becoming a participation prize). This is consistent with the spirit of Affirmative Action, but wouldn't this be at odds with recent rulings of the Supreme Court as to the unconstitutionality of Affirmative Action?

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    $\begingroup$ I don't live in Oregon and don't know anything about this, but I did read the linked article. The requirement, as described in the article, applies to "reading, writing and other skills". Mathematics is not specifically mentioned. Also, the requirement that's been suspended is that students demonstrate "added proficiency" in basic skills through some kid of essay, project, or experience relating their learning to the real world. The article also states that the requirement had already been suspended during the pandemic, and that this is a continuation of that. It also states that schools... $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 24, 2023 at 17:54
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    $\begingroup$ @WillOrrick you may want to check out the report that's linked in the article. It offers far more information than the article itself. oregon.gov/ode/rules-and-policies/Documents/… $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 24, 2023 at 18:15
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    $\begingroup$ The question would be improved by a short summary of what is the basic skills requirement, and what is one graduating into or from there. The link can rot. $\endgroup$
    – Tommi
    Commented Oct 25, 2023 at 5:15
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    $\begingroup$ Seems like an admission by the department of education that remote learning of math during the pandemic was, in some sense, a failure. It is understandable that authorities do not want to hold back large numbers of students that suffered academically as a result. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 25, 2023 at 15:47
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    $\begingroup$ @DanChristensen Can you explain what leads you to think that? Was it something in one of the linked documents? $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 25, 2023 at 16:01

3 Answers 3


My feeling is that it is very difficult to predict what the effect on proficiency will be. Unfortunately, I am not very knowledgeable about this particular issue, but I pointed out some relevant background in the comments, which have by now grow overly long and may disappear at some point, so I think it worth summarizing what was said there, as well as some other things I ran across in my reading but refrained from mentioning earlier. If anyone with actual expertise has corrections, or knows of additional references, please let me know. For now, I am just recording what I have learned; I will come back to add references, links, and quotations as I find the time.

In most US states it was for a long time traditional not to require exit exams for high school graduation. Diplomas were generally awarded for having attended grades 9-12 and having passed a certain number of courses in each of several specified subject areas. A few states, such as New York, did give exit exams, but prior to the last couple of decades, these had been used to confer extra distinction and were not a general requirement.

Starting in the 1970s there was a movement to introduce such exams, which reached a high point in the mid-1990s, at which point 27 states had done so (or planned to). Subsequently, exit exams have fallen out of favor and only eight states still require them (according to the anti-test advocacy site FairTest). This is down from 11 states last year. (Maryland, New Mexico, and Mississippi dropped their test requirement in 2022.) Some states have retroactively awarded diplomas to students who were denied them due to failure on exit exams. Interestingly, this period of declining exit test requirements has coincided with the No Child Left Behind/Race to the Top/Every Student Succeeds era, which is known for its standardized exam mandates, set by the federal government (and for the ensuing, so far ineffectual, anti-test backlash). The primary rationale for the NCLB tests, however, was for evaluating schools and teachers, not for determining student eligibility to graduate. At certain times and places, some tests have been used for both purposes.

For some reason FairTest does not list Oregon either as a state that requires exit exams or as a state that has recently dropped exit exam requirements. I'm not sure why this is. It may be because the Oregon policy allowed students to meet the requirement in other ways, such as through work samples. One state legislator quoted in a couple of news articles expresses the belief the work sample requirement was the original intent of the policy, and that the way it has worked out in practice, with the majority of students fulfilling the requirement through standardized test scores, does not adhere to the real-world experience aspect originally envisioned. Other sources, however, indicate that work samples have been used as a way of making sure those students who failed their 11th grade exams are still able to graduate, by having them enroll in a special course during grade 12 in which the work samples were prepared. One principal states that no student in his school was ever denied a diploma for failing the 11th grade exams. (It is, of course, possible that some students dropped out of school after failing the exam in 11th grade and did not return to complete the work sample requirement in 12th grade.)

Oregon's essential skills requirement was passed by the legislature in 2009 and phased in during the years 2012-14, with mathematics being the last subject to be implemented. The policy was suspended during the pandemic. During this halt, a review of the policy and other educational policies was commissioned, and the recommendations of the committee were published in 2022. One of the recommendations was to discontinue the essential skills requirement. In October 2023 the State Board of Education voted to suspend the requirement for a further five years, until 2028.

One finding of the committee that the board used to support its decision was that the introduction of the essential skills requirement did not result in a significant change in the level of preparedness of high school graduates enrolling in community college or a four-year university. (About 62% of American high school graduates now do so.) A critical article in the magazine Reason points out that this analysis may have missed a positive effect for those students not enrolling in post-secondary education. Another factor, mentioned by the committee, is that the required level needed to pass was not set every high, and may have been too low to expect it to have much of an effect on the skills of students enrolling in higher education.

In summary, the main effect of the essential skills requirement would seem to be expected among those students not planning to pursue higher education, and, in particular, on those with the very lowest exam scores. The arguments in favor of the requirement are that it would allow employers to more easily distinguish between high school attendees who had attained a certain level of achievement from those who had not, and that it would force schools to give extra instruction to those 12th grade students who had failed their 11th year exams. The argument against is that the requirement seems to have had very little effect on preparedness for higher education, but that it could have a lifelong detrimental effect on students denied a diploma because of a low exam score by making it more difficult for them to find employment.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks, that's a mouthful :-) Would you be so kind as to structure your answer a bit better, for example by numbering some of the main points being made? $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 2, 2023 at 15:50
  • $\begingroup$ I'll work on it, and try to add the references. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 2, 2023 at 16:29

Question concerning constitutionality: The reasoning behind the suppression of the requirements can be summarized as follows: since minorities will fail such tests, the tests are unfair and therefore it is preferable that everybody should fail (in the sense of the diplomas becoming a participation prize). This is consistent with the spirit of Affirmative Action, but wouldn't this be at odds with recent rulings of the Supreme Court as to the unconstitutionality of Affirmative Action?

I think that what you are looking for is not things related to Affirmative Action, but rather "disparate impact". I am not a lawyer and what follows is not legal advice.

Here is a link to the US Justice department's guidance on the topic: https://www.justice.gov/crt/fcs/T6Manual7 It is far too long to summarize beyond the very basics here.

In order to go forward with a disparate impact claim, you have to do things like show damages, show that they are centered at or around a particular group, show causation, and show that there isn't a substantial legitimate justification for the policy and that there is a less discriminatory alternative.

One could probably argue that unnecessarily tough or poorly targeted basic skills tests might fail these tests and be deemed unconstitutional. It all depends on the court. That said, this doesn't appear to be a court case, but rather a preemptive attempt to deal with disparate outcomes. I'll leave it open as to whether this is a good way to do that.

  • $\begingroup$ It would be interesting to see in what cases the "disparate impact" clause has been typically applied. I would assume this would apply, for example, when the issue is drilling for oil on land belonging to the Indians (it would have a disparate impact on the Indians compared to the rest of the population). The idea that "disparate impact" would apply to tests of basic competence in arithmetic seems odd. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 3, 2023 at 9:04
  • $\begingroup$ @MikhailKatz See the part at justice.gov/crt/fcs/T6Manual7#R which begins "See, e.g., Sandoval v. Hagan, 197 F.3d 484, 490–91 (11th Cir. 1999), rev’d on other grounds sub nom. Alexander v. Sandoval, 532 U.S. 275 (2001). In Sandoval, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s determination that none of the facts supported the recipient state agency’s rationale for limiting driver’s license examinations only to people who spoke English." $\endgroup$
    – Adam
    Commented Nov 3, 2023 at 14:05
  • $\begingroup$ That's an excellent example of disparate impact. There is no reason why, for example, Hispanic candidates who are able to read traffic signs should be required to compete with native English speakers on theoretical driving tests. In fact, where I live you can take your theoretical test in at least four different languages; meanwhile, there are uniform graduation exams from highschools here. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 5, 2023 at 10:18
  • $\begingroup$ This confirms my hunch that disparate impact is inapplicable to basic competence tests in mathematics. Canceling them will ultimately make highschool diplomas meaningless (and thereby penalize the entire state population under the pretext of the Affirmative-Action-style claim of helping the underprivileged), and will possibly be found unconstitutional. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 5, 2023 at 10:18

What will be the effect of this [suspending the "basic skills" requirement, which includes some math] on the mathematical proficiency of the graduating class?

I don't think anyone is denying that lowering math requirements will cause mathematical proficiency to decrease.

The point of contention here, and in general, is whether it will lead to a net improvement or decline in the future life outcomes of students when you weight the advantages against the disadvantages.

Here are some examples of advantages and disadvantages.


  • Higher graduation rates. Lots of career/education opportunities (even those that don't use any math) are off-limits to people who don't have a high school degree.

  • More focus on life/career skills. Most students will never need to solve a quadratic equation or system of linear equations again in their lives. Even if they don't know how to work with variables at all, it might not hinder them too much (again we're talking about "most" students, not the honors students). But they will definitely need to budget their finances, take out and pay back loans, prepare resumes, etc.


  • Lack of preparation for college. Many colleges require math courses. When college-bound students graduate high school with lower mathematical proficiency, they are far more likely to struggle in college.

  • Many lucrative careers become off-limits. For lots of STEM careers, you actually do need to use algebra, sometimes calculus, and sometimes even math that's beyond calculus (e.g. in engineering). And even for those careers where you don't use much math on a daily basis, you often still need to know math to pass pre-career requirements (e.g. most medical schools have course requirements and standardized testing requirements that cover algebra-based physics). If you want to go into medicine, finance, technology, engineering, law, banking, or some other field generally seen as lucrative, and you didn't develop a firm grasp of at least algebra / trigonometry / precalculus in high school, then you're up against a steep uphill battle.

  • Decline in course quality. There's always pressure from students and parents to make courses easier and inflate grades. If there's an external validation metric like a standardized test, then teachers can point to that as justification for "holding the line" in their classroom -- and they're also more incentivized to hold the line because if they don't, it will show in their students' standardized test scores, and they'll get chewed out by school administrators. When you remove the external validation metric, you remove accountability for learning. If teachers aren't held accountable for student learning, many (most?) teachers won't hold students accountable for learning.

Group Differences

Additionally, standardized test scores generally vary across groups, but people often disagree on how to interpret that, so I won't put it under either list above.

  • Some believe this indicates bias in the test itself, since they believe all groups would have the same score distribution if the test were unbiased. These people generally want test-based requirements to be removed.

  • Others believe that the test is accurately measuring subject ability, which, due to other factors (quality of schools, access to tutoring, cultural value of academic achievement, kids' available bandwidth for studying, parents' available bandwidth to keep their kids in line, presence of role models, etc) is not distributed equally across groups.

    • ↑ This side shares a common belief that the tests expose real group differences. But even still, there is controversy: some think such metrics ought to be removed ("group differences are uncomfortable and maybe if we eliminate ways of measuring the differences then the differences will go away"), while others disagree ("it's better to face reality with full knowledge of the situation").

(I'm happy to add to either side of this list if anyone comments with a good suggestion.)

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    $\begingroup$ As general comments about requirements, I don't have any criticism. However, you don't link any of them to the specific issue in Oregon. $\endgroup$
    – user1815
    Commented Oct 24, 2023 at 18:21
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    $\begingroup$ Most students will never need to solve a quadratic equation --- I haven't looked at the specifics for these "basic skills", but my initial reaction is that the level of math is well below quadratic equations, probably in the vicinity of prealgebra. During the 1988-89 school year (so a while back, so things might have advanced a bit since then), as a full-time high school math teacher in a state that was phasing in a "basic skills" graduation requirement (and I had to work in some of the topics in a prealgebra type course, as well as in my geometry courses), (continued) $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 24, 2023 at 19:17
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    $\begingroup$ the algebra topped out at "two-step" linear equations with small integer coefficients (i.e. takes at most two equation-operations to isolate $x,$ such as $2x - 1 = 3$ and $5x + 2 = 4).$ The other content included simple arithmetic computations (without a calculator), and very simple percent problems (mostly non-verbal), and some simple polygonal figures (e.g. non-square rectangle sharing part or all of a side with a rectangle and/or a triangle) in which one is to find the perimeter and/or area of. I think circles were also included, (continued) $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 24, 2023 at 19:18
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    $\begingroup$ but students were given the circumference and area formulas for a circle along with $\pi$ being approximately $3.14$ or $\frac{22}{7}$ (which was used probably varied). I'm sure there were some other very basic topics, but I don't remember now -- probably some verbal-to-algebraic translations. I mention this to indicate the level of math to non-U.S. readers, who often here seem to vastly overestimate the level of U.S. school mathematics, and for U.S. readers familiar with more current standards who might be interested in how much (or how little?) they've changed during the past few decades. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 24, 2023 at 19:20
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    $\begingroup$ @Justin, in response to your request for suggestions, here is one for the "disadvantage" side. The reasoning behind the suppression of the requirements can be summarized as follows: since minorities will fail such tests, the tests are unfair and therefore it is preferable that everybody should fail (in the sense of the diplomas becoming a participation price). This is consistent with the spirit of affirmative action, but may be at odds with recent rulings of the Supreme Court as to the unconstitutionality of affirmative action. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 26, 2023 at 13:02

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