LEWISTON — A proposal before state lawmakers would create a new high school diploma that could begin with the graduating class of 2017, Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen said Wednesday.

Current seventh-graders who graduate would receive a “proficiency-based” diploma.

“It isn’t about credits and seat time,” Bowen told the Sun Journal editorial board Wednesday.

A proficiency-based diploma means students would graduate only after they’ve demonstrated that they know what they’re supposed to know. Throughout their years in school, they’d only be moved ahead when they’ve proved that they’ve learned what they need to know.

The proposal was also outlined Wednesday to the Legislature’s Education Committee.

To get a high school diploma in Maine now, “you need four years of this, three years of whatever, a certain number of credits,” Bowen said. “This would say, ‘In order to get a diploma, students have to demonstrate they’ve mastered the learning results in eight content areas.’”

The Department of Education would have to build support over the next several years to help schools phase in new ways of teaching.

The state would share cutting-edge work that some school districts are doing, Bowen said.

When the new diploma would take effect, which Bowen said could be 2017, “is the debate,” he said. “When are we going to have the capacity to do that?”

Superintendents have told him districts are all over the place. “They’re anxious about us putting a flag in the ground and saying the class that graduates in year X has to be ready,” he said.

That has to be balanced with the abandoned Learning Results plan adopted in 1997 that was to move away from seat time and give students diplomas when they had mastered subjects. If the new diploma begins in 2017, “that’s 20 years after the Learning Results were implemented,” Bowen said.

A diploma should mean students understand critical concepts, “not that they sat in class and got a C,” he said. “You got the credits, you walked out the door and you’re not ready.”

Bowen said he hears from the University of Maine System, the Maine Community College System and employers that too many high school graduates are not ready for college or employment.

For a lot of students, the school system is working well, but it’s not working well for enough, he said.

Thirty to 40 percent of Maine students are scoring proficient and above, but the remaining students are in various stages, some of them struggling. “The community college tells us the majority of kids out of high school are not ready,” Bowen said.

Some struggled in the primary grades and never caught up, getting what he called a “Swiss cheese” education. He illustrated his point with a student in fifth-grade math. The student does well at decimals, but struggles with fractions. “He doesn’t quite get it. But we’ve got to keep going because that’s how we do it.” The student’s scores are averaged. He gets a B in math. Teachers conclude he’s fine. We move the kid on.”

But that student’s lack of understanding of fractions is a hole in his education “that the system doesn’t pick up. Years later, the student struggles in pre-algebra. The hole starts to get bigger,” Bowen said.

The focus ought to be on ensuring that students master what they need, not on putting them in the third grade because they’re 8 or 9 years old, he said.

“What we’re talking about is not taking down the existing system,” Bowen said. “It’s about creating different pathways, different approaches; creating a learning experience that’s meaningful.”

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