Teacher Betsy Bremner works with student Mozart Oliveira at Spruce Mountain Adult Education in Livermore Falls in a class designed to get students ready for the rigors of college. Credit: Robbie Feinberg | Maine Public

Maine was the first state in the country to embrace a new “proficiency-based” high school diploma. Maine’s current ninth-graders are set to graduate under these new requirements, which apply to subjects from math to English and social studies. However, the Maine Department of Education is considering a change in that law that would potentially make it less onerous to graduate.

To graduate four years from now, students will need to show that they’ve mastered “proficiency” in up to eight different subjects.

But as the deadline for implementing these proficiency standards approaches, the state has been fielding a lot of questions from teachers, parents and administrators. School districts have complained that they don’t know what “proficiency” means under the law, and many parents are worried that some children, particularly those with disabilities, might not ever be able to reach the high school proficiency needed to graduate.

As Maine Parent Federation Executive Director Carrie Woodcock told Maine Public last year, there’s too much at stake to leave some high school seniors without some type of diploma.

[Maine families worry that new grading system will harm college chances]

“These kids are in school for 12 to 14 years, and it can’t be an all-or-nothing model,” Woodcock says. “There’s got to be some sort of alternative pathway to achieving a diploma from the school system.”

State officials say these comments ultimately led the department to withdraw proposed rules around the new diploma late last year. At a work session on a related bill Wednesday, the Department of Education proposed some dramatic changes to proficiency-based diplomas that officials hope ease those concerns.

“Some of what we’re trying to accomplish here is saying, ‘we don’t want to punish those students,’” says Paul Hambleton, the Department Chief Academic Officer.

Hambleton says that under the proposed changes, students would no longer need to be “proficient” at a high school level in eight different subjects in order to receive their diploma. Instead, the diploma and transcript would be used to document a student’s level of proficiency in those subjects, but wouldn’t require they hit high school proficiency in order to graduate.

“We’re dropping the high stakes diploma,” says Hambleton. “But what we’re putting in place, instead, is kind of a school accountability system. Where we’re looking at, ‘how are you doing?”

The department also proposes a new rulemaking process where the “widest possible involvement of stakeholders” – everyone from parents and teachers to universities and businesses – meet and solve some major questions around the law. The department wants this group to determine what “proficient” really means in subjects such as math or English at different levels, from kindergarten through 12th grade. It would also assess what students should know as they head into college or the workplace. Districts would then track that proficiency and report it back to the department.

Hambleton says he hopes the system is more tailored to individual students’ goals.

“We’re thinking, hard, about what is proficiency for?” Hambleton says. “We can answer with students. Why are you learning this?”

Many stakeholders say they’re still reading through the new changes, and some are cautiously optimistic. Ed Cervone is the executive director of Educate Maine, a business-led education lobbying group that supports proficiency-based diplomas.

“[The department of education is] doing a very good job of following through on the responsibilities of identifying the rules, identifying the needs,” Cervone says. “and looking for ways to help students, educators and schools.”

However, questions still remain. Maine Education Association President Lois Kilby-Chesley says she’s still concerned that documenting so many students’ “levels of proficiency” could leave many teachers bogged down in data, with little time to teach. She also still worries about schools implementing these changes by 2021. That’s when the first class of students is to graduate with these diplomas.

“We will continue to move forward,” Kilby-Chesley says. “but it’s going to be a huge mountain to get over to get everybody ready on the timeline that’s set.”

Kilby-Chesley says she hopes the law’s implementation is delayed for another year, though such a delay wasn’t included in the department of education’s proposed changes.

The new changes still need to make their way through the legislature. The education committee is expected to take up a work session on the amendment in the coming weeks.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.

For disclosure, the Maine Education Association represents most of Maine Public’s news staff.