Maine rethinks requiring student proficiency to earn a diploma

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State education officials are proposing a radical restructuring of Maine’s proficiency-based diploma law, which was one of the first in the nation and touted by the governor as one of his key education reforms when it passed in 2012.

Six years later, Department of Education officials are proposing the elimination of a key tenet of the law: Students would no longer have to attain a standard level of proficiency in eight learning areas in order to get a diploma.

Instead, students could earn a diploma without reaching full proficiency in all learning areas, and their level of proficiency would be explained in a transcript attached to the diploma.

“Yes, it’s a big change,” said Diana Doiron, the department’s proficiency-based education specialist. “We got a lot of feedback, a lot of concern from educators and parents.”

The idea is already running into headwinds with the governor’s office, where a top aide said LePage believes students should need to meet some minimum, standard level of proficiency to graduate, and the State Board of Education, which issued a letter last week calling the proposal “quite the opposite” of the intent of the original law. Maine’s law was one of the first proficiency-based diploma laws in the nation after Rhode Island, and similar policies are in place in New Hampshire and Vermont.

The potential restructuring is also alarming some school districts that have already taken steps to meet proficiency standards.

Maine DOE officials say the change is needed because it’s not realistic to expect all children to reach proficiency in all eight learning areas specified in the law.

“Don’t think that we don’t want all of our kids to reach their personal best, and exit (high school) ready,” Doiron said. “Where we struggle is that we’re dealing with human beings and no two human beings are alike. … It’s a struggle to set a bar and say everyone is going to get there by the time they graduate out of high school.”

‘I FEEL LIKE I’M BACK IN 2012’

The department’s proposal is now under review in the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, where it was offered as an amendment to a bill that would have simply delayed implementing proficiency-based diplomas for a year.

This year’s 13,500 freshmen are supposed to be the first class required to meet proficiency standards. To earn a diploma, they must show they’ve mastered specific skills – rather than simply completing a set number of courses and earning credits – in eight content areas: English, math, science and technology, social studies, health and physical education, visual and performing arts, world languages, and career and education development.

Doiron and Maine Chief Academic Officer Paul Hambleton dismissed the idea that the proposed changes mean the department is “giving up on kids.”

“I find that alarming; that’s not something we would want,” Hambleton told the committee at a work session Wednesday. “Our amendment was offered in a different spirit. To acknowledge that students achieve at different levels, not to say they can’t do better.”

Education committee members haven’t voted on the bill yet, but it’s already prompting heartburn.

“I feel like I’m back in 2012,” Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, said Wednesday after hearing feedback on the department’s amendment. “This opens up a whole debate around proficiency. … I’m feeling a level of nausea, like, ‘Whoa! It’s just been cracked open again.’ ”

And now that the law is up for debate, a range of ideas are coming forward. The Greater Schools Partnership, which backs proficiency-based learning, suggested doing away with the foreign language and career development standards. The Maine Curriculum Leaders Association suggested convening a working group to review the proposal. Others asked for more time, or more information, for defining proficiency.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. Committees are under pressure to clear all their bills as the end of the session approaches, and the freshmen affected by the law are well into the second half of the school year.

After hearing the feedback, Rep. Heidi Sampson made a motion to repeal the entire proficiency-based diploma law.

“After six years, since it passed in 2012, we still cannot prove that there’s any benefit to this approach. There is no proof,” said Sampson, R-Alfred, a reform-minded business owner and home-school teacher who has served on the State Board of Education and the Maine Charter School Committee.

“It has gotten to be such a complex monster. Our teachers are hogtied. Our students are not learning,” Sampson said. “We are putting the cart before the horse.”

Her motion was tabled and the committee did not vote on it.

FEARS OF ‘DIMINISHED EXPECTATION’

The proposal to drop the “proficiency” requirement has sent shock waves through the education community, especially since teachers, superintendents, education policy experts, education associations and others have spent countless hours planning the transition, holding listening sessions with parents and explaining what it means to their school communities. Some schools were early adopters, and have already graduated students with proficiency-based diplomas. Others have scrambled to put plans in place to accommodate this year’s freshmen.

State Board of Education member Ande Smith told the committee that the proposed change “could lead to a diminished expectation of academic achievement.” Smith appeared at the work session on behalf of the board, which held a special meeting last week after hearing about the proposed changes.

“The Department’s apparent intent to identify ‘levels of proficiency’ seem to indicate that the Maine Learning Results would no longer be a true set of requirements for all Maine students, but rather aspirational targets,” Smith said in a letter written on behalf of the board.

That, the board said, falls short of all students needing to meet a set of “consistent, uniform, minimum requirements.”

“Such a system would create a perverse incentive for schools, parents, or children themselves to pursue lower academic outcomes for the sake of achieving a diploma, which would be quite the opposite result of raising all students’ achievement for which proficiency-based education was proffered,” Smith wrote.

DEPARTMENT NEVER PUBLISHED RULES

The law was part of a raft of early LePage administration education reforms that included introducing charter schools to Maine and an A-F grading system for schools, shepherded by Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen with assistance from out-of-state education reform organizations.

The work so far to reach proficiency has been intensive, with mixed results. Since local districts determine what “proficient” is, there is no consistency on the value of a diploma across the state. Teachers have questioned if this is the latest in a series of short-lived reform efforts, and parents and students have pushed back against new grading systems they fear could be confusing for college admissions or financial aid officers.

One of the problems under the current law is that the department never put out rules, which provide guidance to districts on how to implement the law. Most districts have just gone ahead and made their best effort, but the lack of rules has created confusion.

There have been steady, vocal concerns since the proficiency-based diploma bill passed that the tougher standards could reduce graduation rates, even if overall student proficiency went up. Others noted that schools aren’t staffed or funded adequately to provide instruction to all students in all eight areas, particularly foreign languages.

Backers say the tougher diploma requirements are needed because the gap between the percentage of students who graduate and those who are proficient in math and reading is around 37 percentage points. One-third of graduates who go on to college in Maine must take remedial courses, according to state data.

The education committee hasn’t yet scheduled another work session on the bill.

AT A GLANCE: Maine’s proficiency-based graduation standards

To earn proficiency-based diplomas, students must show proficiency in eight areas. The state standards are described in the Maine Learning Results, with descriptions of standards by grade level online.

Below are brief descriptions of the standards for 12th-graders. Each district determines how to measure proficiency in each area, and may add requirements, such as a final project or an application to postsecondary education.

1. Career and education development: Having the knowledge, skills and behaviors to interact with others, set goals and make career, college and citizenship decisions. For example, teachers could integrate interpersonal, decision-making and goal-setting skills into classes and school experiences.

2. English language arts: Students read stories, literature and complex texts that provide facts and background knowledge in areas such as science and social studies. Students will be asked questions that push them to refer to what they’ve read to develop critical-thinking, problem-solving, and analytical skills. English standards call for literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects so students can read, write, speak, listen, and use language effectively.

3. Health education: Knowledge of basic health concepts, and the skills required to adopt and maintain healthy and safe behaviors. For example, students must be capable of analyzing the reliability and validity of health resources; communicating effectively using conflict management skills; setting goals; and making healthy decisions.

4. Math: Knowledge of algebra, functions, modeling and statistics and probability, with the ability to transform algebraic expressions, explain equations, verbal descriptions, tables and graphs or draw diagrams of important features.

5. Science and technology: Learning based on themes of systems, models, constancy and change, and scale. Understand the universal nature of matter, energy, force and motion, and identify how the relationships are exhibited in earth systems, the solar system and the universe. Understand that cells are the basic unit of life, that all life has evolved through genetic transfer and natural selection to create a great diversity of organisms.

6. Social studies: Knowledge of civics and government, economics, geography and history, including a balanced exposure to the major eras of United States and world history.

7. Visual and performing arts: Meet proficiency in one or more of the visual and performing arts disciplines: dance, music, theater and visual arts.

8. World languages: Students express their own thoughts and opinions about familiar topics and elicit the thoughts and opinions of others by using sentences and/or short paragraphs in at least one language other than English.

FAILING TO MEET STANDARDS

A student who doesn’t meet those standards can still get a high school diploma if the student:

– Has a defined disability and meets the goals of an individualized education plan.

– Completes freshman year at an accredited school of higher education.

– Experiences education disruption such as a hospitalization or homelessness, and demonstrates proficiency in a plan approved by the commissioner.

– Meets the standards in a waiver request approved by the commissioner.

Source: Maine Department of Education

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