AUGUSTA — Six years after Maine became one of the first few states to adopt new high school graduation standards, lawmakers are poised to roll back those requirements by allowing school districts to decide whether to issue proficiency-based diplomas.

Both the House and the Senate voted Tuesday night to eliminate the state mandate that students demonstrate proficiency in eight key areas – including math, English and science/technology – to graduate. Rather than repeal the 6-year-old reform law altogether, the bill would enable school districts to choose whether to continue using proficiency-based standards or revert to the traditional system of courses, A through F grades and credits to qualify for graduation.

Supporters say the bill is about returning “local control” to school districts without halting the switch to proficiency-based diplomas in communities that want them.

“It allows each local school district the option of choosing which path to follow for their students,” said Rep. David McCrea, D-Fort Fairfield, a retired former teacher. “The passage of this bill in no way will affect the school districts that choose to retain the proficiency-based diploma requirements.”

However, the fight over Maine’s proficiency-based education law is not over yet.

Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, a leading advocate for the reforms, placed a “hold” on the bill Tuesday that prevents it from being sent to Gov. Paul LePage and keeps the door cracked for additional potential votes next month. The LePage administration, meanwhile, appears less than enthusiastic about lawmakers’ attempts to whittle away at a school reform law that supporters contend is aimed at ensuring that students from any high school – whether in wealthy, southern Maine towns or rural, economically challenged areas – have the basic skills needed to succeed after graduation.

“The original bill was intended to move us toward ensuring high-quality education for all students by setting common expectations for what students experience and graduate with,” said Rachel Paling, spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Education. “The passage of L.D. 1666 will pose challenges to ensuring that equity because it removes the common expectations for all students. Educational equity has been and will continue to be the focus of the department’s work regardless of this bill’s outcome.”

EIGHT SKILLS, DEFINING ‘PROFICIENCY’

This year’s freshman class was supposed to be the first required to meet the new proficiency standards, although several schools already have begun issuing proficiency-based diplomas.

Passed in 2012, the original law states that students can only earn a diploma after showing they’ve mastered specific skills. Instead of taking certain courses and earning credits, they must show “proficiency” 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. Rather than grades A through F, many schools are switching to a 1 through 4 grading system.

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But the law allows schools to define “proficiency,” which critics say only encourages inequity in the system.

School boards, teachers and district administrators have spent the past several years gearing up for the proficiency-based graduation standards. But the shift to a completely different system has been controversial at the local level. Some parents contend the system is overly complex and bureaucratic while, at the same time, the 1 through 4 grading system may not allow high-achieving students to distinguish themselves from the pack. Additionally, they express concerns that Maine graduates could get passed over by college admissions officials unaccustomed to the alternative grading system.

Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, said he believes that the Legislature went “a bridge too far” in 2012 by imposing well-intentioned requirements on schools without subsequent financial support, training or consistent leadership from the Maine Department of Education. Berry said policymakers in Augusta must ensure schools are receiving the financial resources they need to support teachers, while trusting those in the classrooms to decide how best to teach students.

“Setting goals is fine, but it won’t lead to equality of opportunity. Setting expectations is fine and it’s important, but that alone is not enough to ensure that all of our students will succeed,” Berry said during House floor debate. “We need to teach the children if we want to get smarter and we need to support our schools if we want them to get better.”

UNWINDING MAJOR REFORM EFFORT

Bill opponents said the measure will merely disrupt the new system before it has a chance to demonstrate positive results.

Langley, co-chair of the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee who has taught culinary arts for years, said the proficiency-based system is more equitable, especially for students who, like himself, faced bias within the system because they grew up “on the wrong side of the tracks” or did not attend a school with many resources. He said the new system ensures that students from any school, regardless of resources, graduate with skills needed to succeed after graduation and are judged on the quality of their work.

Langley acknowledged it would be a major feat to reverse the 19-12 vote in favor of the bill in the Senate, although several senators were absent at that time. But Langley said he hopes by holding onto the bill until the Senate meets again – likely during the week of July 9 – he could change a few minds.

But the bigger issue, Langley said, is the message that the Legislature is sending to school administrators and teachers by beginning to unwind a major education reform effort that has been years in the making.

“We can’t keep going like this,” Langley said Wednesday. “We can’t keep lurching from left to right … and if I’m fighting tooth and nail for this, it’s for those teachers and superintendents out there on the line who are saying ‘tweak it’ ” rather than dismantle it.

But Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-South Portland, disagreed with Langley and other bill opponents who depict the legislation as dismantling proficiency-based education.

“The report before you today was the best answer the majority of the education committee could get to on a bipartisan basis to thread the needle of the emotional arguments on both sides of the issue, those fiercely advocating for an outright repeal and those advocating to keep it in place,” Millett said. “So I would disagree that this is a sledgehammer. This is a very fine thread that we are trying to weave here to respect those who see a potential and have buy-in within the community to move forward, and those that do not. We are allowing those to choose.”

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

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