State education officials are proposing a radical restructuring of Maine’s proficiency-based diploma law, which was one of the first in the nation and touted by the governor as one of his key education reforms when it passed in 2012.

Six years later, Department of Education officials are proposing the elimination of a key tenet of the law: Students would no longer have to attain a standard level of proficiency in eight learning areas in order to get a diploma.

Instead, students could earn a diploma without reaching full proficiency in all learning areas, and their level of proficiency would be explained in a transcript attached to the diploma.

“Yes, it’s a big change,” said Diana Doiron, the department’s proficiency-based education specialist. “We got a lot of feedback, a lot of concern from educators and parents.”

The idea is already running into headwinds with the governor’s office, where a top aide said LePage believes students should need to meet some minimum, standard level of proficiency to graduate, and the State Board of Education, which issued a letter last week calling the proposal “quite the opposite” of the intent of the original law. Maine’s law was one of the first proficiency-based diploma laws in the nation after Rhode Island, and similar policies are in place in New Hampshire and Vermont.

The potential restructuring is also alarming some school districts that have already taken steps to meet proficiency standards.

Maine DOE officials say the change is needed because it’s not realistic to expect all children to reach proficiency in all eight learning areas specified in the law.

“Don’t think that we don’t want all of our kids to reach their personal best, and exit (high school) ready,” Doiron said. “Where we struggle is that we’re dealing with human beings and no two human beings are alike. … It’s a struggle to set a bar and say everyone is going to get there by the time they graduate out of high school.”

‘I FEEL LIKE I’M BACK IN 2012’

The department’s proposal is now under review in the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, where it was offered as an amendment to a bill that would have simply delayed implementing proficiency-based diplomas for a year.

This year’s 13,500 freshmen are supposed to be the first class required to meet proficiency standards. To earn a diploma, they must show they’ve mastered specific skills – rather than simply completing a set number of courses and earning credits – in eight content areas: English, math, science and technology, social studies, health and physical education, visual and performing arts, world languages, and career and education development.

Doiron and Maine Chief Academic Officer Paul Hambleton dismissed the idea that the proposed changes mean the department is “giving up on kids.”

“I find that alarming; that’s not something we would want,” Hambleton told the committee at a work session Wednesday. “Our amendment was offered in a different spirit. To acknowledge that students achieve at different levels, not to say they can’t do better.”

Education committee members haven’t voted on the bill yet, but it’s already prompting heartburn.

“I feel like I’m back in 2012,” Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, said Wednesday after hearing feedback on the department’s amendment. “This opens up a whole debate around proficiency. … I’m feeling a level of nausea, like, ‘Whoa! It’s just been cracked open again.’ ”

And now that the law is up for debate, a range of ideas are coming forward. The Greater Schools Partnership, which backs proficiency-based learning, suggested doing away with the foreign language and career development standards. The Maine Curriculum Leaders Association suggested convening a working group to review the proposal. Others asked for more time, or more information, for defining proficiency.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. Committees are under pressure to clear all their bills as the end of the session approaches, and the freshmen affected by the law are well into the second half of the school year.

After hearing the feedback, Rep. Heidi Sampson made a motion to repeal the entire proficiency-based diploma law.

“After six years, since it passed in 2012, we still cannot prove that there’s any benefit to this approach. There is no proof,” said Sampson, R-Alfred, a reform-minded business owner and home-school teacher who has served on the State Board of Education and the Maine Charter School Committee.

“It has gotten to be such a complex monster. Our teachers are hogtied. Our students are not learning,” Sampson said. “We are putting the cart before the horse.”

Her motion was tabled and the committee did not vote on it.

FEARS OF ‘DIMINISHED EXPECTATION’

The proposal to drop the “proficiency” requirement has sent shock waves through the education community, especially since teachers, superintendents, education policy experts, education associations and others have spent countless hours planning the transition, holding listening sessions with parents and explaining what it means to their school communities. Some schools were early adopters, and have already graduated students with proficiency-based diplomas. Others have scrambled to put plans in place to accommodate this year’s freshmen.

State Board of Education member Ande Smith told the committee that the proposed change “could lead to a diminished expectation of academic achievement.” Smith appeared at the work session on behalf of the board, which held a special meeting last week after hearing about the proposed changes.

“The Department’s apparent intent to identify ‘levels of proficiency’ seem to indicate that the Maine Learning Results would no longer be a true set of requirements for all Maine students, but rather aspirational targets,” Smith said in a letter written on behalf of the board.

That, the board said, falls short of all students needing to meet a set of “consistent, uniform, minimum requirements.”

“Such a system would create a perverse incentive for schools, parents, or children themselves to pursue lower academic outcomes for the sake of achieving a diploma, which would be quite the opposite result of raising all students’ achievement for which proficiency-based education was proffered,” Smith wrote.

DEPARTMENT NEVER PUBLISHED RULES

The law was part of a raft of early LePage administration education reforms that included introducing charter schools to Maine and an A-F grading system for schools, shepherded by Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen with assistance from out-of-state education reform organizations.

The work so far to reach proficiency has been intensive, with mixed results. Since local districts determine what “proficient” is, there is no consistency on the value of a diploma across the state. Teachers have questioned if this is the latest in a series of short-lived reform efforts, and parents and students have pushed back against new grading systems they fear could be confusing for college admissions or financial aid officers.

One of the problems under the current law is that the department never put out rules, which provide guidance to districts on how to implement the law. Most districts have just gone ahead and made their best effort, but the lack of rules has created confusion.

There have been steady, vocal concerns since the proficiency-based diploma bill passed that the tougher standards could reduce graduation rates, even if overall student proficiency went up. Others noted that schools aren’t staffed or funded adequately to provide instruction to all students in all eight areas, particularly foreign languages.

Backers say the tougher diploma requirements are needed because the gap between the percentage of students who graduate and those who are proficient in math and reading is around 37 percentage points. One-third of graduates who go on to college in Maine must take remedial courses, according to state data.

The education committee hasn’t yet scheduled another work session on the bill.

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: noelinmaine

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