AUGUSTA — A proposed overhaul of Maine schools that could include the elimination of age-based grade levels failed in the House on Wednesday after a spirited debate, but a top LePage administration official hopes to revive it in the Senate.

The bill, L.D. 1422, is a key part of the education reforms proposed by the governor and his education commissioner, Stephen Bowen. It would repeal high school diploma requirements and instead require students to show they have mastered a rigorous set of standards.

Students would have to show proficiency in every standard before they could graduate. Students’ progress could be reported with numbers instead of letter grades, and schools could do away with age-based grade levels.

Bowen said the bill would change the way diplomas are granted but would give school districts flexibility in implementing the changes. He said there’s confusion about what the bill would and would not do.

“It’s meant to be less restrictive than current law,” he said.

The bill got a public hearing last year, but many parents were unaware of the sweeping changes it proposed, particularly after it was amended by the Legislature’s Education Committee.

After the bill sailed through initial House and Senate votes this year, parents started contacting lawmakers with concerns.

On Wednesday, the bill failed to get the two-thirds vote it needed in the House. It needed 101 votes to pass because it would be an unfunded state mandate for schools. The House voted 76-67 in favor of it.

Many representatives who voted against the bill on Wednesday said they are concerned that districts would be required to implement it without any additional state funding. Bowen said he will work with the Senate to remove the mandate clause, in hopes of getting the bill passed.

The bill’s supporters said Maine schools aren’t serving students well and it’s time for a change.

“People are not terribly happy that kids are promoted strictly on the basis of time spent in a seat,” said Rep. Richard Wagner, D-Lewiston. “It’s just not right for students to be graduating without knowing how to add, how to subtract.”

Opponents, both Democrats and Republicans, said the bill needs more time for consideration. They said they are hearing from parents and cities and towns that the requirements are unproven and that they would work well in some districts but not others.

“Before we force the entire state to do this, I have one single request,” said Rep. Maeghan Maloney, D-Augusta. “Show me it works.”

The bill would require schools to award proficiency-based diplomas after Jan. 1, 2017, though there is a provision for schools to get waivers until 2020.

Students could repeat tests and assignments as often as necessary, and they would be given more freedom to demonstrate knowledge of a skill, such as creating a video or a presentation instead of writing a traditional essay.

School districts that have implemented parts of the program are still in the midst of change, so only limited data are available on its effectiveness. Few schools have adopted the full model or have graduated students with it, though more than two dozen Maine schools are pursuing forms of the model.

Critics of the new system have expressed concern about students’ motivation, college admissions, teachers’ ability to handle it all and the resources available to retrain them.

No school in Maine has eliminated age-based grade levels. The most visible change so far in most districts — and the one that has drawn the most questions and complaints — is in the 1-to-4 grading system.

Kristin Aiello, who has two middle school-age daughters in the Hall-Dale schools, said she’s concerned that the new standards wouldn’t push high achievers hard enough.

“It’s is not a culture that pushes for excellence,” she said. “How are colleges going to look at 1, 2, 3, 4? How is that going to look when they are applying to competitive colleges?”

Kennebec Journal staff writer Susan McMillan contributed to this report.

Susan Cover — 620-7015
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