Oregon Abolishes Academic Standards in the Name of “Equity” and Antiracism

The progressive state of Oregon is getting rid of reading, writing, and math requirements for high-school graduation, in the name of helping “Latinx” and minority students. As Jazz Shaw notes, it’s doing this “based on allegations of racism.” The “governor’s deputy communications director said that dropping the requirements ‘will benefit Oregon’s Black, Latino, Latina, Latinx, Indigenous, Asian, Pacific Islander, Tribal, and students of color.’”

“This is a choice to have everyone equally ignorant instead of unequally educated,” says journalist Brit Hume. It reflects “the bigotry of no expectations” for minority children, laments Andrew Sullivan. By contrast, progressives who want to abolish these basic standards say doing so promotes racial “equity.”

The Oregonian reports:

For the next five years, an Oregon high school diploma will be no guarantee that the student who earned it can read, write or do math at a high school level.

Gov. Kate Brown had demurred earlier this summer regarding whether she supported the plan passed by the Legislature to drop the requirement that students demonstrate they have achieved those essential skills. But on July 14, the governor signed Senate Bill 744 into law.

Through a spokesperson, the governor declined again Friday to comment on the law and why she supported suspending the proficiency requirements.

As Shaw points out, it’s now common for progressive local governments to abolish standards if minorities supposedly can’t
meet them:

We’ve seen this in so many liberal school systems by this point that it’s almost becoming routine. They weren’t getting enough minority students who were able to pass the proficiency exams. So rather than putting in the work to bring those students up to speed, they simply dropped the requirement for everyone, essentially turning their diplomas into participation trophies.

Oregon’s law passed over Republican opposition: “Democrats in the legislature overwhelmingly supported ending the longtime proficiency requirement, while Republicans criticized it as a lowering of academic standards,” notes the Oregonian. The elimination of these standards is likely to reduce academic achievement. As the Oregonian points out, “The requirement that students demonstrate freshman- to sophomore-level skills in reading, writing and, particularly, math led many high schools to create workshop-style courses to help students strengthen their skills and create evidence of mastery. Most of those courses have been discontinued since the skills requirement was paused during the pandemic before lawmakers killed it entirely.”

However foolish it may have been, Oregon’s decision to eliminate standards was consistent with critical race theory. Since minorities meet these graduation standards at a lower rate than whites, they need to be discarded, according to critical race theorists, even if these standards measured useful skills.

The most famous critical-race theorist is Ibram Kendi. His book How to Be an Antiracist, is a “comprehensive introduction to critical race theory,” notes the leading progressive media organ Slate.  Kendi’s views are celebrated in the Washington Post and the New York Times. The Times touts Kendi’s axiom that “When I see racial disparities, I see racism.”

If blacks and Hispanics meet Oregon’s standards at a lower rate than whites and Asians, that is proof of “racism” to Kendi, who teaches that every unequal outcome – economic, educational, social — that can be measured is the product of racism. He argues that the “use of standardized tests to measure aptitude and intelligence is one of the most effective racist policies every devised to degrade Black minds and legally exclude Black bodies.”

Kendi is wrong to claim that unequal racial outcomes are all due to racism. Many obviously are not. For example, Latinos live three years longer than whites, on average, even though doctors don’t discriminate in their favor. Asians make more money than whites, on average, even though Japanese and Chinese Americans used to face massive discrimination. And while blacks make less money than whites, on average, immigrants from some African countries like Ghana and Nigeria typically make more money than whites do.

Unequal racial outcomes exist everywhere in society and the world, usually for reasons unrelated to racism, as the black economist Thomas Sowell chronicles in his book Discrimination and Disparities.

Oregon’s academic standards led to schools teaching students skills that are useful in our economy. But that may not matter to leading critical race theorists. They want to abolish the capitalist system, not sustain it. “To love capitalism is to end up loving racism,” writes Kendi in How to Be an Antiracist.


Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by Liberty Unyielding on August 10, 2021 and is crossposted here with permission.

Image: Oregon Department of Transportation, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, cropped.

Hans Bader

Hans Bader is a senior attorney at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

8 thoughts on “Oregon Abolishes Academic Standards in the Name of “Equity” and Antiracism

  1. It is important to note that many private and home schooled high school students are exempt from state testing requirements. Such forms of schooling are disproportionately attended to by white student populations. As such, it can be assumed that such students are exempt from the negative outcomes related to failing such tests. As a result, the majority of children subject to state testing are minorities who cannot afford private education. I cannot speak to Oregon state, but the fact that private school students are generally exempt from the state testing—that has been used to prevent minority students from advancing to higher education—creates an unequal condition that can be traced back to the legal systems that were created to sustain school segregation and the unequal outcomes that legally “separate but equal” farce of a system created.

    The interesting thing about state proficiency tests is that a student can have passing classroom grades and still be unable to graduate due to a failing score on a standardized test. At that juncture who is to blame? The student? The teacher? The curriculum? Yet only one is penalized: the student.

  2. Please read Steven Pinker’s “The Blank Slate.” Chapter 8,” should be given careful study. The fear of inequality is addressed. From where I sit we must do something about it, i.e.the fear — not just the inequality.

    Now, go figure. John Little, Sr.

  3. To Mr. Bader’s credit, his is the only piece we’ve read on this subject that mentions both the sunset clause for the law and the underlying dilemma that the law is supposed to solve.

    My kids are teachers who report the past school year has been a nightmare. There has been a lot of confusion– bureaucratic schools are ill adapted to adapt to crisis. (The principal told one of my kids to ‘just come up with something’.) Teachers are expected to conduct remote classes using unreliable technology, and not all of the students have internet. Remote classes are not appropriate for younger children, and are not effective for many of the older children. Student engagement is worse and the pace of learning is slower for all students.

    Through no fault of their own students are not learning, and the school knows that an extra year of high school is not realistic.

    And yes, the students who are most affected are disproportionately from minority ethnicities.

    Still, we wonder if the Oregon State legislature misses the point entirely. Will students suffer in life because they do not have a high school diploma, or because they lack the education essential to function in a modern society?

  4. It’s easy to mock this, but I have my doubts about whether it is all that big a deal. My understanding is that most states don’t have the kinds of requirements that Oregon is dropping. In fact, the students have their brains tested out over 12 years of school. I don’t know how many fail to graduate because of not passing this final hurdle. I bet not many. OK, the remedial test prep courses to try to get people up to ninth grade level have been dropped. Are the students taking anything else in their stead? If they are, there may not be a loss.

    OK, the governor’s deputy communications director made a very stupid statement about minority students. And I probably wouldn’t have favored this move. But I’m not sure it’s much of a deal.

    By the way, Gov. Kate Brown is the sister of Jerry Brown — the former “Governor Moonbeam.” It seems to run in the family. And it spreads up and down the coast.

    1. The reason not many students fail to graduate because of low scores is because….when students score low on a freshman-to-sophomore proficiency test, there is time to provide added resources to that student’s curriculum. The student, if he applies himself, uses the opportunity to improve his proficiency by the 12th grade and qualify to graduate.

      If proficiency test are eliminated, there’s no way to determine which students are not proficient and need extra help in the area of defiance. The opportunity for the failing student is forever lost. This hurts the student, not the adults in the room. Really damaging decision against those the educators purport to be helping.

  5. It is worth noting Oregon has seven public universities and a substantial percentage of the incoming first-year students at these universities are Oregon high school graduates. It is not hard to see the writing on the wall. The academic reputation of these universities will immediately suffer and soon decline. Indeed, it will be inevitable. But hey, at least they can bathe in the glory of having achieved equity and having vanquished the dragon of systemic racism once and for all.

    1. That seems like kind of an unsubstantiated claim. The students who can’t pass the minimal former requirements aren’t going to be going to the public universities anyway. Apart from the question of whether this move is good for the bottom-feeding students who have trouble with the current requirements.

      1. On the contrary. Many students attend college because they have no idea what else to do after HS. Moreover, they are strongly encouraged to attend college by their HS advisors and, with the proliferation of pell grants and student loans, they see no financial barriers. These students are led to believe they have a HS diploma, therefore, by definition, they have the requisite skills needed to attend college. Programs designed specifically to recruit minority students have increased dramatically over the past few years.

        A 2015 study conducted by the U.S. Dept. of Education (What predicts participation in developmental education among recent high school graduates at community college? Lessons from Oregon) found that 20% of the incoming freshman to 4-year colleges–repeat, 4 year colleges—took at least one remedial education course. Now that Oregon has dropped reading, writing and math standards for minority students, do you expect that percentage is likely to increase or decrease?

        As a side note, 52% of the incoming freshman to the University of Oregon in academic year 2021-2022 are Oregon residents.

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