Last rites for proficiency-based learning

By taking “three steps back,” Maine legislators give local school districts more power to decide what works best in their communities.
books sorted in bins by subject in a classroom
Photo by Gabe Souza.

If everything had gone according to plan, all Maine high school seniors would now be graduating with diplomas based on their ability to show they were proficient in math, English, science and other subjects.

No longer would diplomas be a reflection of how much time a student spent in school. Instead, students simply had to show they learned the information before they were promoted to the next grade. If they had to retake a test, it wouldn’t matter as long as they eventually learned the idea or mastered the skill. If they finished class assignments early, they could move on to the next grade level. They could learn at their own pace.

“Maine is truly leading the nation in its efforts to scale up standards-based education adoption statewide as well as mandating proficiency-based high school graduation requirements,” read the conclusion of a 2016 report by the Maine Education Policy Research Institute.

But the major education reform passed by the Legislature in 2012 didn’t go according to plan. With little funding from the state, a failure to get buy-in from parents and uneven implementation from district to district, lawmakers kept pushing back the deadline for diplomas to be issued, then decided to make it optional and now have removed references to proficiency-based diplomas from state law.

In June, Gov. Janet Mills signed L.D. 985, which is designed to give local school districts more power to decide what works best in their communities. Districts that embraced proficiency-based diplomas — and the techniques that support it — can continue to use it and districts that did not are not required to implement it.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Justin Fecteau (R-Augusta), described his bill as a step backward and a chance to level the playing field so parents, students and local schools can have more control over the education system used in their city or town.

Rep. Justin Fecteau (R-Augusta)
Rep. Justin Fecteau (R-Augusta)

“I think something that parents have been fearing is we’re not going back to the basics,” he said. “This is three steps back to the basics. This is three steps back to where we were eight years ago.”

Back then, Republican Gov. Paul LePage, backed by a Republican-controlled House and Senate, passed education reforms that included adding more charter schools and requiring all Maine high schools to issue proficiency-based diplomas by 2018 (a deadline that was extended twice by subsequent legislation). 

Supporters of the new diploma system — which received strong bipartisan support — believed that it was time to get away from tying graduation requirements to how much time was spent in school and move to something that allowed for more flexibility.

Although it’s been implemented differently in schools across Maine, the basic tenets of proficiency-based education, according to the U.S. Department of Education, include moving away from “seat time” to allow students to move forward as they master content and allowing flexibility in the way credits are awarded. Supporters said too many students in Maine were graduating high school without basic skills, pointing to a statistic that showed 54 percent needed remedial schooling before they could enter community college.

As an example, former Sen. Brian Langley (R-Ellsworth), a restaurant owner and culinary arts teacher, said he had hired high school graduates who couldn’t write up a menu, perform simple division or do fractions.

But as the system began to be rolled out in schools, parents started to raise concerns. Some schools switched from the traditional A-F grades to a 1-4 system that meant different things in different districts. Parents said they could no longer tell how well their students were doing in school and worried that high school transcripts needed for college admission would create roadblocks to getting their children into college.

They also complained that their high-achieving children were now bored or unmotivated and that the idea of allowing tests to be retaken didn’t reflect how things work in the real world.

In addition, the Maine Department of Education didn’t give districts the money they needed to implement it, said Sen. Rebecca Millett (D-South Portland), chairwoman of the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee. She described the original law as an “under-resourced experiment.”

Rebecca Millett. Photo by Gabe Souza.
Sen.Rebecca Millett (D-South Portland).

“They passed this sweeping education reform,” she said. “It was huge. It changed the core of what would be expected of schools, school districts and teachers. But there was no serious leaning into it. There was anemic leadership from Augusta. Anemic resources for training, systems development and community buy-in.”

As a result, some communities embraced it and others rejected it, she said. Just how many high schools have issued proficiency-based diplomas is unclear, with the state education department saying earlier this month that it does not track the number, saying “this is not reported to us.”

In March 2018, when asked by Pine Tree Watch how many schools were issuing the diplomas, the department cited a 2016 progress report on the changes being made in districts across the state. At that time, eight districts were identified by the department as having made the switch, with others scheduled to make the change in 2019 and 2020.

But that information is now outdated and the department is no longer required to track it, said Beth Lambert, coordinator of secondary education and integrated instruction. Part of the difficulty is that there is no one definition for a proficiency-based diploma.

“When we talk about proficiency-based diploma, there are differences of opinion on what that looks like,” Lambert said. “It is not either traditional or proficiency-based. As many schools as there are you’ll find as many models of implementation.”

Moving forward, the state will continue to set guidelines for schools, but it will be up to local districts to create a system that works best for them. Kelli Deveaux, a former Westbrook High School principal who now serves as communications director for the state education department, said the department wants to encourage local control, much the same way it is encouraged in local government.

“Parents should get and remain involved and have conversations with their districts,” she said. “We have a lot to be proud of here. Their involvement helps everyone to be successful.”

Steven Bailey, executive director of the Maine School Management Association, the group that represents school boards and superintendents, said the new law provides some additional clarity to local school districts, but more work is needed to set Maine on a course to ensure that students in all parts of the state get the same education.

“On one hand there is local control, but it doesn’t provide confidence that a diploma in Kittery means the same thing in Washington County,” Bailey said.

Millett said the new law is clearer for districts, but that the insistence on local control that is so valued by many makes it hard to ensure that a standard in one part of Maine means the same thing in another. She said she’s hopeful the department will be able to re-engage with local curriculum coordinators to continue to define standards.

“There is a role for the state,” she said. “We have to make sure when students are graduating they are ready for a job or post-secondary program. There definitely needs to be guardrails.”

The idea of moving away from requiring 120 hours of time with an instructor — a standard set more than 100 years ago known as the Carnegie Unit — to something based on “mastery of content” has caught on in states across the country, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a bipartisan research institute that tracks legislation.

NCSL reported that New Hampshire has been working to transform its schools to the more flexible system, commonly called competency-based education, for more than 10 years. Other states — Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, South Carolina and Utah — set aside money for competitive grants to fund the design of programs in local schools. Maine joined Vermont and Ohio to change diploma requirements, NCSL reported in 2018, although the Maine law has now changed again in large part because parents pushed back.

Changing state law – again

Last July, as the state Legislature was wrapping up the work of an extra-long session, lawmakers passed a bill to allow — rather than require — Maine high schools to issue proficiency-based diplomas, a major step-back from the 2012 law that mandated it.

The move was seen as a way to balance concerns raised by parents who were angry and confused by the system with school districts that had spent considerable time implementing it.

But Fecteau, a freshman Republican legislator from Augusta, wanted to remove the reference to proficiency-based diplomas in state law entirely. He found a partner in Education Commissioner Pender Makin, who met with him personally to re-work the bill so it provided guidance to school districts about graduation requirements. 

Makin, a former assistant superintendent in Brunswick, was appointed to her post late last year by Mills and has said she wanted to reform the state education department so it works in a collaborative — rather than dictatorial — way with local schools.

“She was fantastic,” Fecteau said. “I remember sitting in her office one day, it kind of looked like a crime scene investigation with yarn going from person to person, papers and stuff all over the place. People coming in to say, ‘hey what’s going on?’ It gained its own excitement within her office. We just tore it up one afternoon.”

Fecteau, a German language teacher on leave from Maranacook Community High School to serve in the Legislature, said he felt strongly about striking the word “proficiency” from state law because it has many different meanings to different people. He and others at the department landed on “standards” instead, which he described as a universally understood word to educators. The use of standards-based education is widespread in Maine schools, with some districts using it from the elementary level up, Lambert said.

“I know a lot of schools have been working on ‘what does graduation mean?’,” Fecteau said. “They’ve been doing a lot of work and while I don’t agree with how (proficiency-based diplomas) have been implemented, I wanted to respect the fact that people were looking into what does it mean to be a graduate.”

With the changes in Fecteau’s bill, the law now outlines the requirements for basic subject areas such as English and math with the additional language “or the equivalent in standards achievement.” Fecteau hopes this will address one of the major complaints opponents of the proficiency-based system have expressed — that high achieving students become bored once they have shown they are proficient in a subject area.

“Some kids gather the information rather quickly and they want a new pathway,” he said. “I think that’s a great catch for schools to use for high expectancy students.”

In addition, the law outlines “fundamental policies,” something the business community pushed for as qualities they wanted to see in Maine high school graduates, Fecteau said. The law requires school districts to find ways to ensure that a graduate is “a clear and effective communicator, a self-directed and lifelong learner, a creative and practical problem solver, a responsible and involved citizen and an informed and integrative thinker.”

Finally, the law spells out that children with disabilities must be awarded a high school diploma if they meet the standards set in the individualized education plan tailored to their needs.

Bailey said superintendents who worked to implement proficiency-based education when it was mandated by the state were relieved that they can continue those practices under the new law. He said the new law ensures that students who pursue a career and technical education track are able to show they understand the content through “multiple pathways.” And he said the law’s specific mention of special education students is a positive as well.

But more work remains to ensure the standards are up to date.

“There needs to be more awareness and education about what a diploma actually means,” he said.

In talking with parents who have fought to get rid of the proficiency-based system, Fecteau said it’s come to represent many things parents dislike, whether it’s the Common Core standards, Maine Learning Results, or how education has changed in recent years.

“It’s different than what parents experienced,” he said. “They saw (proficiency-based diplomas) as the vehicle for all the things they feared.”

And while the state no longer mentions proficiency-based diplomas in statute, it cannot control whether school districts opt to use proficiency-based education or a grading system that is unfamiliar to parents, he said.

Fecteau said parents who continue to be frustrated by schools that focus on proficiency — or a 1-4 grading scale instead of using traditional A-F grades — need to get involved at the local level to change school policy.

“It’s about getting on the school board or if you can’t get on the school board, it’s about being the noisemaker during the school board meetings,” he said.

Millett said part of the difficulty in implementing something as major as proficiency-based diplomas is that lawmakers only serve two-year terms and face term limits after eight years.

“The biggest fault of the proficiency-based diploma system was it didn’t engage the stakeholders, it was top down,” she said. “There’s a push to do things quickly rather than allow changes to develop strong foundations. This one had very shaky foundations.”


Susan Cover

Susan Cover has been a journalist for 24 years, working at newspapers in Kansas, Rhode Island, Ohio and Maine. In 2002, Susan moved to Maine to cover state government and spent 10 years in the Statehouse Bureau working for the Kennebec Journal. She covered state budgets, hundreds of bills, and referenda campaigns including bear baiting and marriage equality. In 2013, Susan was promoted to city editor at the Kennebec Journal, leading a team of reporters and photographers to put out each day’s paper. Susan is a graduate of Muskingum University in Ohio and has a master’s degree in newspaper journalism from Syracuse University. Most recently, Susan left daily newspaper journalism to pursue freelance writing and her other passion – taking run-down houses in Kennebec County and bringing them back to life. She lives in Augusta with her partner and their pets – Piper the cat and Wooley the dog.
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