Bangor High School Credit: Gabor Degre

Even those pleased with the reversal of a law that would have required Maine high schools to start handing out proficiency-based diplomas say it doesn’t — and, some argue, shouldn’t — spell the end of the push to link advancement with subject-area expertise in Maine’s schools.

In July, Maine Gov. Paul LePage signed into law a bipartisan bill that effectively repealed a statewide mandate requiring this year’s freshman class to prove their proficiency in eight “content areas” before they could earn their high school diplomas in 2021.

“I am hopeful that this bill will open the door to great learning experiences for students,” LePage wrote in a letter explaining why he was signing a bill countermanding the proficiency law he signed six years earlier. “The implementation of the original proficiency bill moved us in the opposite direction of what I intended when I signed it.”

Districts put years of work into preparing for a new proficiency-based diploma system, and most will likely continue the push toward some form of proficiency standards, if at a slower pace and under less pressure from the state.

Up for debate

When LePage signed proficiency-based education into law in 2012, proponents argued it would help bring students onto an even playing field, and ensure they had the skills and competence needed to enter Maine’s workforce.

During the next six years, debate raged in school circles over what “proficiency” means, how best to measure it, and how to grade it and evaluate students.

One of the most oft-cited concerns was that some students — notably those in special education — would be left behind because they couldn’t meet the same level of proficiency as other students, and thus couldn’t advance to the next grade or earn a high school diploma.

Rural schools struggled to find teachers qualified to teach certain disciplines, especially for foreign languages and sciences. Other districts didn’t like the idea of abandoning traditional numerical or A-F grading systems.

Proponents of proficiency-based education argued that the effort was intended to close student achievement gaps in districts where impoverished and disadvantaged students lag behind peers in other parts of the state by ensuring they’re all held to the same standards and expectations.

What comes next?

Even the Maine Department of Education isn’t yet sure.

“The department is in the process of conducting a legal review to understand the changes that come with the passage of LD 1666, and will be working to determine how best to support schools going forward,” the department said in an update shared with schools last week. “The department thanks the field for their patience as we work through these changes.”

Stay course or slow down?

Some districts expect little to change in the wake of this decision.

Hallowell-based Regional School Unit 2, which includes five Kennebec Valley towns with 10 schools, was among the first districts in the state to zero in on proficiency-based education. The district’s board of trustees started making the push even before Maine passed its proficiency-based education law in 2012.

As a result, RSU 2 has been issuing proficiency-based diplomas for the past two years, and will continue to do so, according to Superintendent William Zima.

“One of the best things you can do for students is be clear on where they are and what you expect of them,” Zima said during an interview Monday. “It’s the same thing we do with adults.”

The district abandoned the A-F grading system for a 1-4 proficiency scale, though students still get a numerical grade to put on their transcripts. Special education students have individualized education plans, with standards set by a team of teachers who work with the student to figure out what their proficiency baselines should be. As long as students hit their personal goals, they still get their diploma, Zima said.

Students do get held back for a fifth year of high school if they don’t meet diploma standards, Zima said, but that number hasn’t risen in any significant way since the proficiency switch.

“Kids you would have assumed were on a path to drop out based on demographics are staying with us” because they see a “clear, defined path” to graduation, Zima added.

Zima said he understands the confusion and concerns around proficiency-based diplomas, but doesn’t see those outweighing the value of a proficiency-based system.

“The law is by no means perfect. I don’t think any law is perfect,” Zima said. “But I think there’s absolutely no reason to go the other way.”

Other districts likely will take the opportunity to slow things down.

Bangor schools Superintendent Betsy Webb said Monday that she feels the decision to eliminate the proficiency-based diploma mandate was the right one, “given the problems of there being no consistent standard from high school to high school and the wide variance of system readiness across the state.”

She said her district was on track to start issuing these diplomas in 2021, but that many other districts weren’t prepared. Bangor’s school board now will “re-evaluate the best way to ensure students have the necessary skills to be college-, career- and life-ready upon graduation,” Webb said.

The requirement that students demonstrate proficiency in eight defined content areas would limit students’ options during high school and might hinder efforts to pursue certain career paths.

“The ones who would have been hurt by marching forward with [proficiency-based diplomas] were the students of Maine,” she said. Bangor schools might revisit a system it used previously in which students received “endorsements” on transcripts to show their content proficiency level.

For Rep. Victoria Kornfield, D-Bangor, who proposed the bill to remove the diploma mandate, proficiency-based diplomas seem more focused on workforce development than on quality education.

She cited support from groups such as the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and Educate Maine as evidence that the proficiency-based diploma push might be better for the business community than it is for schools and students. Not every Maine student wants to be in a traditionally in-demand field, so requiring students to meet standards required for those sorts of roles holds students back from focusing on subjects that interest them in favor of checking off graduation requirements, she said.

“I’m just really concerned about this push of businesses into schools,” she said. “They’re not educators.”

Ed Cervone, executive director of Educate Maine, said the diplomas were only a tool to measure progress under proficiency-based education, and that eliminating them doesn’t solve a problem, but creates more confusion.

While Cervone and others have acknowledged problems with the diploma system, “it’s not about the diploma; it’s about student success,” he said.

He worries that a lot of ground gained by schools in the past few years could be lost if districts decide to abandon the proficiency push now that it’s no longer mandatory.

“You’ve got six years of schools digging into this and finding real value,” he said.

Maine’s next governor will take the reins soon after the start of the next school year. That person will install the state’s next education commissioner, following years of turnover and shifting priorities at the helm of the Maine Department of Education.

Kornfield, a retired teacher, said she hopes the new governor and his or her commissioner will renew the conversation about how best to adapt and measure proficiency-based education statewide. She argued that the new commissioner should focus on school administrative training and working with schools that are lagging behind their peers, rather than requiring everyone to adopt the same standards.

Kornfield and other leaders in education say that proficiency-based education is still something worth striving for, but it should keep in mind the differences between students and schools. Just having the proficiency discussion and starting to make changes was enough to improve a lot of schools, Kornfield said.

“I just never could understand how you could expect to have one standard for everyone,” she added.

Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.

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