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Pioneering Reform Act Under Attack in Oregon

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Mounting fiscal pressures and opposition from parents have prompted legislators in Oregon to take another look at the state's comprehensive school-reform act--including its pioneering adoption of certificates of mastery.

The House and Senate education committees last month had three days of joint hearings on the act, and the House panel was expected late last week to take action on proposals to revise or repeal it.

"It's an experiment," said Sen. Marylin L. Shannon, a Republican. "It should have been proven in a pilot study in a couple of schools districts before we expected every school in the state" to follow it.

The Oregon Educational Act for the 21st Century was approved in 1992. Beginning in spring 1997, it requires that students by age 16 earn a "certificate of initial mastery" that documents their ability to read, write, solve problems, and think critically. They would then be expected to work toward a "certificate of advanced mastery" through college-preparatory coursework or technical education and on-the-job training.

The law also calls for extending the school year from 175 to 200 days by 2010, expanding early-childhood programs, creating ungraded primary schools, using performance-based assessments in grades 3, 5, 8, and 10, and giving parents and teachers a greater voice in how schools are run.

The Oregon act reflects recommendations offered in the 1990 report "America's Choice: High Skills or Low Wages." The report, issued by the Rochester, N.Y.-based National Center on Education and the Economy, warned that schools must improve the performance of all students, not just the college-bound, for their graduates to succeed in an increasingly complex economy.

For its efforts, Oregon was the first state to receive an implementation grant under the federal Goals 2000 law. It was also the first selected for the "EdFlex" plan, which gives states greater flexibility in how they use federal dollars to achieve reform. (See Education Week, Feb. 22, 1995.)

Critics Call for Repeal

But over the past year, many of the Oregon law's main elements have been called into question. Critics charge that the standards for the certificates are unclear. Others argue that the cost of the reforms is too great given the big budget shortfalls caused by the passage of a property-tax-limitation law five years ago.

"My greatest worry is that they have made big business the consumer of education," Senator Shannon said. "It used to be that parents were the consumers of education on behalf of their children. Now they are trying to turn out compliant group workers instead of educated citizens."

Carol Petrone, who works for a conservative citizens' group in Oregon, said she agrees with Ms. Shannon and would like to see the act repealed.

"This bill was passed without the general public even being aware of it and was pushed through with very little comment," according to Ms. Petrone, the assistant to the research director at the Oregon Citizens Association.

Ms. Petrone said she is particularly concerned that replacing traditional grades with student portfolios would prove too cumbersome for college-entrance committees.

But a professor directing a project to develop proficiency-based admissions for Oregon's public universities suggested that Ms. Petrone's criticism was off target. The project calls for admissions to be based on student performance in six subjects: mathematics, science, social science, foreign languages, humanities and literature, and the arts.

"We will not take raw portfolios," said David T. Conley, an associate professor of educational policy and management at the University of Oregon.

"We will establish standards and work with schools to design new assessment methods," he said. "Over time [the assessments] will replace grades, but functionally they are very similar to grades."

One Portland administrator said he is concerned that teachers may interpret efforts to revise the act as a sign that the legislature is not serious about school reform.

"I don't think we can afford to maintain a system that says it's O.K. for some kids to do well and not for others," said R. Patrick Burke, the district official in charge of implementing the act.

Department's View

Larry Austin, a spokesman for Superintendent of Public Instruction Norma Paulus, said there is strong support in the education department for retaining the act.

Mr. Austin said the public has raised legitimate questions about the act, and he noted that Ms. Paulus has proposed amending it to include more parents on site councils and allowing the state school board to grant districts waivers from part of the law.

The House education committee was expected last Friday to consider several proposals, including one that would repeal the act and another that would remove the certificate requirement and replace it with a reworked "certificate of accomplishment," in grades 3, 5, 8, and 10, and add standardized norm-referenced tests as a requirement for the certificate.

Lawmakers now face a Catch-22 situation, said Julie L. Brandis, a legislative representative for Associated Oregon Industries, a business and industry coalition.

If the act is not modified enough to address critics' concerns, opponents hope to introduce a ballot initiative asking voters to repeal the law. But if supporters believe it has been watered down too much, Gov. John Kitzhaber, a Democrat, is expected to veto the measure.

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