School districts on the leading edge of proficiency-based education are still in the midst of change.

That’s why only limited data is available on the effectiveness of the education model that may soon become mandatory for all Maine public schools.

The system gives students greater freedom to create their own assignments and requires that they demonstrate proficiency in specific skills and topics before progressing or graduating.

Under the new model, also called standards-based education, students may repeat tests and assignments as often as necessary; their progress is reported with numbers instead of letter grades; and schools may do away with age-based grade levels entirely.

Assessing the success of proficiency-based education is tough, because very few schools have adopted the full model or have graduated students with it.

But many of those who teach education are sold.

Doug Lynch, chairman of the education department at the University of New England, said he and his colleagues are already training future teachers in the proficiency-based approach. He hopes to develop graduate-level courses for teachers already in the field.

“Quite honestly, this is the most effective educational reform that I’m aware of in my entire 40 years of being an educator,” Lynch said.

Janet Fairman, associate research professor at the University of Maine’s Center for Research and Education, said she is not familiar with any research on proficiency-based education, but she thinks it could put Maine on the path to ensuring that all high school graduates have the knowledge and skills they need.

“Overall, in theory, I support the idea, but I have some strong concerns about feasibility,” she said. “Can we afford to do this, to provide the supports necessary to really help those students attain those proficiencies, and address the repercussions for students when they’re held back?”

Standardized test scores don’t tell outside observers much about the effectiveness of proficiency-based education because they’re based on students’ memories, not their school performance, said Maine Superintendent of Instruction Donald Siviski.

“It’s how much can you regurgitate,” Siviski said. “When we get to open-ended constructive responses, then you’ll see how kids think, rather than how much they can remember.”

Proponents of proficiency-based education talk of overhauling the infrastructure of American public education — of changing the entire delivery system.

Concerns about the new system have ranged from student motivation, to college admissions, to teachers’ ability to handle it all and the resources available to re-train them.

Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen said he sometimes encounters concerns from parents about schools “experimenting” on kids.

In addition, he said, a few school leaders have worried that proficiency-based education is just another fad that the department will drop in a few years.

“You’ve got this weird dichotomy where you’ve got this constant churn of reform, and yet the core pieces don’t move,” Bowen said. “Now what we’re doing is getting to those core pieces, and that’s I think where it’s going to take some time. There’s a culture change piece to it.”

He added, “We’re talking about taking a 100-year-old system and taking it into a new era. That isn’t going to happen overnight.”

Seeing improvement

Searsport District High School began using proficiency-based education in 2003, and its class of 2010 was the first to go through four years of high school under it.

Instead of standardized test scores, Searsport Principal Brian Campbell looks at graduation rates and at how many times students repeat classes after failing.

In 2010, the most recent year for which official figures are available, 92 percent of the seniors graduated, compared to 83 percent statewide. In the previous decade, Searsport’s graduation rate had ranged from 65 percent to 81 percent.

Campbell said the three students who did not graduate with the class in 2010 returned to school for a fifth year and earned diplomas, but Maine counted them as high school dropouts because they did not finish in four years.

In addition, 12 percent of Searsport freshmen used to repeat classes, but now it’s down to 2 percent.

Students can stay after school to work with teachers or go to a summer academy to catch up with standards they haven’t met, rather than taking an entire course again, Campbell said.

“We have so many interventions built into our system that it’s hard for kids not to meet the standards, not to progress through our system,” he said.

Proficiency-based education has been implemented more fully in some scattered districts outside Maine.

Only one graduate of Chugach School District in Alaska attended college in the 26 years before proficiency-based education was adopted in 1994. Before that, the district had Alaska’s lowest scores on the California Achievement Test, outscoring only 28 percent of students who took the test nationally.

Achievement rose rapidly with proficiency-based education, and by 1999, Chugach students outperformed 72 percent of students taking the California Achievement Test.

Chugach’s leaders formed the Reinventing Schools Coalition in 2002 after winning a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to spread its model to other districts. The coalition had contracts with the Maine Department of Education to train teachers in six school districts, including regional school units 2 and 18.

A 2010 study by Colorado-based Marzano Research Laboratories, prepared for the coalition, compared the state test scores of students from seven school districts using the model in Alaska, Colorado and Florida and comparable other schools in the same states.

The study found that students in the coalition’s schools were 37 percent more likely to score proficient or above on state tests for reading, 54 percent more likely to score proficient or above for writing, and 55 percent more likely to score proficient or above for mathematics than students at other schools.

Lindsay Unified School District in central California — where RSU 2 Superintendent Virgel Hammonds was high school principal last year — began enacting “performance-based” education, as it calls its version of the model, two years ago.

Lindsay students in kindergarten through 11th grade are in a fully proficiency-based system, and the district’s state test scores have risen in each of the last two years.

“We improved the last two years, and the two years prior to that we didn’t improve,” Superintendent Janet Kliegel said. “So, that’s a positive trend, but it’s not enough. You really need three years of data to see. Are the reforms we’re doing really working, or was it something else?”

Students who attend public universities or community colleges in California take entrance exams, and Lindsay educators will track their graduates’ entrance exam scores to see how well the proficiency-based system prepares students for higher education.

Are colleges prepared?

Reactions from parents were mixed at public forums recently organized by RSU 4 to field questions about the school board’s decision to employ proficiency-based education.

“The range of responses was, ‘Why aren’t we doing this yesterday?’ to, ‘I hope we never do it,'” RSU 4 Superintendent Jim Hodgkin said. “They want to know how it’s going to affect their individual child. They want to know how it will affect their ability to go to college. They have concerns about doing away with class rankings.”

One of the most frequently raised questions is whether college admissions staff will understand standards-based transcripts, on which students will be rated on individual skills and topics rather than an average of their overall performance in a course, such as freshman English.

Students’ achievement will be reported using a scale of 1 to 4, instead of the traditional A to F grade model. Siviski said students still will have the equivalent of a grade-point average, but it will start at 3.0 because no one will be allowed to graduate until they have earned that score on every standard, which indicates a student has shown achieved proficiency.

Some parents worry the new system will hurt their children when they apply to college or interfere with GPA-based honors or scholarships.

Derek Pierce, principal at Casco Bay High School in Portland, said that is a legitimate concern but ultimately “an absolute myth.”

Casco Bay has used standards-based grading since its formation as an alternative high school in 2005. The goal of the school staff is for every student to gain acceptance to college before graduating.

In the first two graduating classes, 2009 and 2010, they achieved that goal. For the class of 2011, the acceptance rate was more than 90 percent, and school staff are still working with a few graduates to get them there.

Each Casco Bay graduating class has had 50 to 60 students, and graduates are now studying at Yale, Brown, Bates and Colby, Pierce said.

“Our rate of kids going to college is significantly higher than our demographics predict,” Pierce said. “Standards-based grading is not the reason for that, but it is a contributing factor. It sets up that we don’t accept C and D work. You have to fundamentally meet something in order to get credit.”

University of Maine Admissions Director Sharon Oliver said high schools typically provide a profile to colleges to explain how to interpret their students’ transcripts. Colleges also review the college performance of previous students from a particular high school to judge how well applicants are prepared, she said.

“We will make it our business to know what’s going on in Maine high schools,” Oliver said. “It may take us some time when we’re reviewing a file when we’re not familiar with a new system, but I don’t see it as a problem.”

University of New Hampshire Admissions Director Rob McGann said most colleges and universities receive applications from students with a wide variety of educational backgrounds.

“There are an enormous number of grading systems that come through our office and any admissions office,” McGann said.

And because Maine is not the only state pursuing these education reforms — other New England states are working on similar models — that could mean admissions counselors in the region will become more familiar with the concept.

But now it’s still hit or miss. For instance, Boston University spokeswoman Mary Tunney said her school has “very limited experience” with standards-based transcripts, so she didn’t want to comment on them.

High schools graduates need to be prepared to do more than gain acceptance to higher education, however; they must also have the tools to succeed in their studies.

Jonathan Henry, dean of enrollment management at the University of Maine at Augusta, does not oppose Maine’s movement toward proficiency-based education but said he wants to see evidence of its effectiveness.

State and college officials need to know that Maine’s standards are rigorous and that they include the kinds of knowledge and skills that high school graduates will need for college or career, Henry said.

The Department of Education is working to build a data system that could be used to track students graduating with standards-based diplomas to see how they perform in college courses.

“It would be wrong to require a standards-based diploma without having an opportunity to do the appropriate studies we need at the post-secondary level to see what’s working or not, and what we need to tweak,” Henry said.

Changing expectations

Supporters of proficiency-based education say the concept is a matter of common sense.

“I’m a wellness nurse,” said Wendy Paine, mother of a child at China Primary School in Regional School Unit 18. “So, I compare it to if someone wants to lose weight, everyone responds differently to a plan. I think there’s a lot of potential for it.”

Hallowell father Jeff Romano, who has a son in fifth grade, takes issue with the entire concept, however.

“When I hear ‘proficiency,’ it just sounds like ‘mediocrity,'” he said. “There’s no sense of encouraging excellence. When they get out of high school and get into the real world, it’s not about being ‘proficient.’ You need to be better than people in other positions.”

Romano thinks that allowing students to work at their own pace and to repeat tests or assignments also won’t prepare them for employment as adults.

“There’s no repercussions for turning in something that’s not proficient the first time,” he said. “There’s got to be some sort of effect for not doing something well the first time.”

Monmouth Selectman Doug Ludewig doesn’t see a need to overhaul an education system that works for many children. The retired Monmouth Academy teacher said some parents and students have told him that students miss the motivation of maintaining a high class average under the traditional grading system.

In other words, a rating of 4 lacks the appeal of an A.

Kliegel, the California superintendent, said proficiency-based education has increased motivation among students in her district.

“For really bright kids, the motivation is, ‘I get to move forward; I’m not held back,'” Kliegel said. “For the kids who struggle, the motivation becomes, ‘Well, if it takes 10 times for me to get this, the teacher is going to stay with me until I get it.’

“One student said to me, ‘What you’ve done is not let me fail.'”

As the district has introduced its “performance-based” model one grade at a time, there’s been the same pattern every year, Kliegel said. At the beginning of the year, some students slack off, only to realize around January that they really do have to show they understand the learning standards, or risk repeating the material.

Ludewig spent most of his career in special education, where each student has an individuale plan. Ideally, he said, every student would his or her education tailored to individual abilities, but it’s not feasible on a large scale. The average high school teacher has dozens of students each day.

Some people worry about the role of teachers in proficiency-based education; Farmingdale father Tom Lynch’s eighth-grade daughter is one of them.

“Her concern is that the teachers aren’t going to be able to teach anymore, and they’re just going to have to be a resource for the kids to go to when they have problems,” Lynch said. “Everything else will be online. That’s not how it’s playing out right now, but that’s how she thinks it’s headed.”

Maine Education Association President Chris Galgay said he worries about proficiency-based education becoming a burden on top of all the other work teachers and school districts must do.

Galgay said it reminds him of the local assessment system that was part of the Maine Learning Results law, the first set of standards that the state adopted.

School districts were required to develop their own methods for determining whether students met the learning results standards, but many districts found the task was beyond their resources or expertise.

In 2006, Gov. John Baldacci declared a moratorium on the local assessment system.

Moving to proficiency-based education also will require school districts to adopt new methods of assessing and tracking student learning, though the Department of Education plans to share models from school districts that are further along in adopting the education model.

“If it’s completely changing the system, it’s hard to believe that someone would think it wouldn’t be an overwhelming workload,” Galgay said.

To make sure teachers can keep track of each student, RSU 2 has bought a program called E-ducate. Students can upload their work into the program, where teachers evaluate it and assign a score. A feature of the program allows parents as well as teachers to see a student’s history, current work and future learning targets.

Hammonds said direct instruction will become more important because teachers need to customize for students and because the standards are so specific.

“The art and science of teaching doesn’t go away,” he said.

Susan McMillan — 621-5645

[email protected]


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