In this Sept. 3, 2020, file photo, Brewer students had their first day of school. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Jennifer Bowman’s third-grade students no longer simply complete a unit as a class and move on. Instead, the Brewer Community School teacher pays close attention to how well each student understands the material, and teaches it until everyone gets it.

“I’ll take a few kids who are struggling with fractions, reteach it in a way they might understand better, reassess, and they always get it,” Bowman said. “It doesn’t take long, it just takes small group instruction and another chance.” 

It may not sound radical, but the approach represents a shift brought about by Maine’s multi-year push for “proficiency-based education,” even though the state has largely since dropped it.

The state nixed a controversial proficiency-based diploma requirement — which would have required that students master expectations in eight subject areas to complete high school — in 2018, only six years after its adoption. And earlier this month, Brewer’s school committee rescinded the school department’s last remaining proficiency-based education policies. But parts of the education format that stresses having students master all course materials — and largely at their own pace — have survived in Brewer classrooms.

“Even though kids fail, the goal of proficiency-based learning was, we wouldn’t give up and we’re not going to leave anyone behind,” Brewer Superintendent Gregg Palmer said. “It’s a commitment to every student.” 

Bowman said it means more work for teachers, but that the more individualized attention required to ensure all students are mastering class materials has led to better outcomes. It’s also meant students feel more confident and supported, she said.

“That’s so important, no matter what grade they’re in, and proficiency-based education is part of that puzzle,” Bowman said. 

The Brewer School Department as a whole has seen improvement from the push for proficiency-based education, said Renita Ward-Downer, Brewer’s director of instruction. Failures among high school students have become less common, for example.

She credits a robust system of supports that the school department set up as part of its proficiency-based education push.

High school students have access to a tutor center, and middle- and high-school students have an intervention block when they can meet with teachers to get extra help or retake tests. 

“The effects of proficiency-based learning are still here, and I think they’re helping our teachers do good work without being tied into unintended rigidity that policy creates,” Palmer said.

In a pure proficiency-based format — not necessarily Brewer’s more mixed approach — students move through material at their own pace and work on a given topic until they’ve mastered it. Students are also graded using a one-through-four rubric designed to show how well students understand course material instead of the traditional 0-to-100 or A-through-F scales. Students are also free to retake exams on which they do poorly and pass in work late without penalty. 

Today, elementary- and middle-school students in Brewer still receive a report card with grades on a one-through-four scale, but high school students’ report cards are a hybrid of traditional and proficiency-based grades, Ward-Downer said.

Bowman, the third-grade teacher, said the education style has given students clear expectations of what they should know, which has caused them to be more self-directed and engaged with learning the material. 

Second-grade teacher Taylor Pierce said much of the additional work for teachers comes from having to create more assessments to gauge how well students understand each part of a unit. But those assessments give teachers and parents a better idea of where students are struggling so they can receive additional support. 

“Before, if a student got an 80 percent on a math assessment, that’d be it,” Pierce said. “Now, we have to look at whether they met certain standards.

“All of the questions they got wrong may be attached to one standard,” she said, referring to a particular skill students need to master, “which we may not have caught before, so it helps us see where the gaps are.”

While elementary- and middle-school teachers and students adapted to the change relatively easily, Ward-Downer said high-school students struggled because “they’d been trained to get a certain grade” rather than focus on how deeply they understood the material. 

Palmer said he believes the state’s proficiency-based diploma law failed because families weren’t educated on the reasoning behind it.

“It’s more confusing to grade someone on a one-through-four rubric rather than on a 0-100 scale,” he said. “It’s an uphill battle when you’re changing something as personal and well understood at a cultural level as education. It was an academic and a cultural exercise, and I don’t feel it was given proper vetting.”

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Kathleen O'Brien

Kathleen O'Brien is a reporter covering the Bangor area. Born and raised in Portland, she joined the Bangor Daily News in 2022 after working as a Bath-area reporter at The Times Record. She graduated from...