AUBURN — To pass civics class at Edward Little High School, freshmen no longer have to achieve a grade of 70 or better.

They now receive grades of 1 to 4, with 1 indicating they have not met the standards, 2 meaning they’re getting there, 3 meaning they have met expectations and 4 that they have exceeded standards.

Students have to demonstrate that they meet proficiency-based learning standards. That means that in civics class, they have to show that they understand:

* Some of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases;

* The amendment process of the U.S. Constitution, that the Constitution is a living document that can be changed;

* How to participate in a democracy; and

* The rights and responsibilities of citizens.

There are flaws with PBL, said civics teacher Craig Latuscha, but the new way of achieving provides students with “a deeper understanding of the stuff we are teaching. When I was in high school and college, I memorized a lot of stuff. After a month, I forgot it.”

On Wednesday his class discussed the Supreme Court 1969 decision, Tinker v. Des Moines, in which the court ruled against an Iowa school district’s decision to ban students from wearing black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War.

Latuscha assigned his class to form groups and look at documents, including a photo of Vietnam War protests outside the White House. “Analyze, not just regurgitate information,” he said, what the photos and documents tell them about the era.

Students huddled in small groups and got to work.

Latuscha said that under the former learning system, when a student didn’t do well, “they get the grade they get. We move on.”

With PBL, if students don’t understand a concept, “they can do it again.”

But while he and other teachers say there’s a lot of good in PBL, students in his class and at Lewiston High School offered more critical reviews.

Some students said PBL is “making lazy learners.” Because students are given time to retake tests or papers, some don’t put in the work.

Others complained that the PBL grading system of 1-4 is vague and confusing. They worry it will hurt them when applying for college.

Still others said they like PBL because the focus is on learning and PBL offers a clear picture of what they need to do.

Bella Swift, 15, is a member of the first EL class that would graduate with PBL diplomas. “It seems like it could work,” she said. She agreed with her Latuscha that it provides a deeper understanding, but she’s concerned. To graduate in 2021, her class will have to meet a lot of targets.

“The classes above us don’t,” she said.

She prefers the old way. “The grading confuses people,” she said. “I like the ABCs (for grading) better. That’s what I’m used to.”

Aaron Hart, 15, said, he also prefers the old way and dislikes the 1-4 grading. “A grade of 2 could mean anything,” he said. “It’s all over the place.” PBL is good for students who do well, Hart said. “But students who struggle, it’s a little harder because they have to push themselves way harder than they’ve ever had to.”

At Lewiston High School, students Cody Harvey and Olivia Lampron said they like PBL. “It’s more accurate,” Harvey said in his algebra class. “Before, we got a (letter) grade. It didn’t show what you can do.”

With the old system, students could pass and still not understand the concepts, both students said.

Their teacher grades them on the standards they need to know. “If we can do all of these, we get a 3,” Harvey said showing off graphs on a work sheet. “If we can do more, we get a 4.”

Their teacher, Michaela Stanley, said with PBL “students are leaving my class with more knowledge.” They’re more focused on learning than getting a certain grade, she said. “I like that.”

She also likes that students are able to retake quizzes or papers until they know what they need to know. Some don’t get the concept the first time around.

“I’d want them to have the skill,” she said. If they don’t, “then they’ll struggle the rest of the year in my class.”

In teacher Michelle Crowley’s debate class, freshman Corbin Martel said PBL is “making lazy learners. It’s destroying the work ethic because some are not working as hard, and getting the same grades” as those who work their tails off, Martel said. “I don’t think that’s right.”

Bryce Dufour, 14, said he likes PBL. “It really shows us what we have to do.” But he agreed that some students don’t put in the work, knowing they can just retake papers or quizzes. Parents don’t understand that a grade of 2.5 early in the year is not failing, students are still learning. It’s the grade at the end of the year that counts.

Abigail Dundore said PBL focuses on learning, “not getting a good grade.” The focus is on how to write well rather than, “‘Look, I can get a good grade.’”

Her brother, Calvin Dundore, agreed that PBL is all about learning, which is what school should be. But he’s worried about what happens when he applies to college with PBL numbers on his transcript.

“Colleges are looking for grading,” Dundore said. “Unfortunately, that is what we’re up against.”

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Ollie Ouellette listens to freshman civics teacher Craig Latuscha at Edward Little High School in Auburn on Wednesday afternoon. Freshmen at Edward Little are using a proficiency-based learning system this year. The system is under fire statewide. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

Abigail Dundore, third from left, makes a point about proficiency-based learning in debate class at Lewiston High School recently. At left are Madison Conley and Gemma Landry; at right is Abigail’s brother, Calvin Dundore. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

Lewiston High School teacher Michaela Stanley, center, helps student Josh Randall in algebra class. At right is student Cody Harvey. Stanley said proficiency-based learning means “students are leaving my class with more knowledge.” (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

Bella-Jean Swift listens during her Edward Little High School ninth-grade civics class in Auburn last Wednesday. Freshmen at Edward Little are using a proficiency-based learning system, which has come under fire across the state. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)