AUGUSTA — When today’s seventh-graders graduate from high school, they will have earned diplomas by showing what they know, regardless of how long they have been in school.

If a student can finish high school in fewer than four years, that will be fine. If it takes longer, that will be OK, too.

That’s the premise of L.D. 1422, a bill that is making its way through the Legislature.

“I always thought it was kind of a cruel hoax to give a student a diploma and a pat on the back as they walked off the stage, when they haven’t mastered reading, writing or arithmetic,” said Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, sponsor of the bill, L.D. 1422.

Langley, who taught culinary arts for 30 years, said he was shocked to see how many high school juniors and seniors couldn’t write well enough to create a menu. Some didn’t understand how to divide or do fractions.

In Maine, there is no exit exam for graduating seniors nor are there end-of-course exams that require students to prove they have mastered a subject area. As long as a student gets a passing grade, they move on to the next level and eventually get a diploma.

That was supposed to change back in 1997, when Maine instituted Maine Learning Results, a set of standards in different subject areas. It’s taken until now to get legislation passed that requires schools to move to something that actually requires students to prove they have mastered basic subject areas, supporters say.

Schools can trade letter grades for numbered grades, or eliminate age-based classes all together if they want, but they are not required to. School districts must allow students to show what they know in a variety of ways, from traditional tests to portfolios, performance, exhibitions and projects, the bill states.

The Department of Education pushed for the change because 54 percent of high school students who go on to community colleges need remedial coursework before they can take college-level classes. That costs students money they often can’t afford, the coursework doesn’t go toward the their college credits and it’s discouraging to many, said department spokesman David Connerty-Marin.

“We need to give them a diploma that says this is based on what you have learned, not the amount of time you have spent learning it,” he said. “Right now we say you did your time and you didn’t fail. You get your diploma but that doesn’t mean you have the skills you need.”

The Maine Education Association, the union that represents teachers, did not take a position on the bill, nor did the Maine School Superintendents Association.

In the Legislature, the measure was supported — and opposed — by both Democrats and Republicans.

Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, is a former chairman of the Education Committee and a bill supporter.

“What L.D. 1422 does is strengthen Maine Learning Results by allowing local schools and school boards to create standards,” he said. “Now a diploma will have more meaning.”

Langley said vocational and technical schools have used a form of standards-based education for a long time. For example, his culinary arts students would get a transcript to take to potential employers that clearly listed that they knew how to make a soup, or decorate a cake. Regardless of whether the student did it right the first time or if it took two or three tries, an employer would know he or she had demonstrated the skill needed to perform the work, he said.

Bill opponent Rep. Maeghan Maloney, D-Augusta, has a son in seventh grade who will be in the first class subject to the new regulations. She said top-down educational mandates from Washington, D.C., or Augusta haven’t worked in the past, and she doesn’t think they are a good idea now.

“My concerns is that we’re forcing school districts to undertake a program that we don’t know works,” she said.

As it is now, school districts can choose to go to the system, as they have in Hall-Dale and other areas. She doesn’t see a need to require it statewide.

“In school districts where is has been successful, it’s because of parents and teachers deciding they want to implement this program,” she said. “If it comes from the ground up, those are the communities that have been successful.”

A week ago, the bill failed to get two-thirds support in the House, which was necessary because it passed along an unfunded mandate to local schools. When it got to the Senate, it was amended to provide a small amount of funding to local schools so it would no longer need a supermajority to pass.

On Monday, it passed the House 90-51, with no debate. Although more votes are needed, the legislation is expected to get final approval this week and go to Gov. Paul LePage, who supports the measure.

Two Democrats — Rep. Sharon Treat, D-Hallowell, and Rep. Devin Beliveau, D-Kittery — tried to amend the bill in the House, but both ideas were rejected. Treat wanted to require districts to set up plans for teacher training and outreach to students and parents. She also wanted to clarify that local districts would maintain control of grading systems and over how students are advanced from one grade to another.

Beliveau, a teacher, wanted to add one day of teacher training to the school year to ensure that teachers are ready to change to a different system.

The legislation mandates that students show proficiency in English, math, science and other areas set by the local school board to earn a diploma after Jan. 1, 2017. There is a provision for schools to get waivers until 2020. An amendment that provided funding also states that implementation can be delayed if the state fails to provide adequate funds.

Connerty-Marin said new diploma standards will help employers too.

“It will have universal meaning across the state so employers will know the holder has met Maine Learning Results standards,” he said.

Susan Cover — 620-7015

[email protected]

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