‘Hard to sort out’: School districts move toward, or turn from, proficiency-based learning

After six years of confusion, heated criticism and lack of state direction, proficiency-based diplomas are no longer required. Now it’s up to school districts to decide for themselves.
books sorted in bins by subject
With Maine schools no longer required to issue performance-based diplomas, some parents and district officials are relieved, but others say they’ll press on with plans that have been in the works for six years. Photo by Gabe Souza.

Superintendents across Maine say the Legislature’s decision to let local districts decide how to issue high school diplomas means they now have more time to set up systems that work and build consensus before making major changes.

School districts in Maine are at different stages of implementing what had been a state mandate that required districts to award proficiency-based diplomas by 2021.

An uprising by parents — particularly in Lewiston, Auburn and York — and a failure by the state Department of Education to provide clear direction prompted lawmakers in July to allow districts to opt out of the requirement.

“What the Legislature has given us is the gift of time and to allow us to reassess where we’re at with this,” said York’s new Superintendent Lou Goscinski.

In 2012, Democrat and Republican legislators supported a bill to require school districts to issue high school diplomas using a system that aims to measure whether students are proficient in certain areas before they can graduate. This proficiency-based learning bill was hailed at the time as an effort to get away from a system that valued time spent in school and move toward one that makes sure students understand basic concepts before they’re promoted to the next grade and/or allowed to graduate.

However, the state Department of Education failed to define proficiency for school districts and did not provide strong guidance on how to set up such systems. As a result, school districts largely have had to figure out how to implement proficiency-based learning standards themselves, and that’s led to confusion about what’s required and what’s optional.

Auburn Superintendent Katy Grondin said her district is poised to move ahead with implementing a system that requires students to show they’re proficient in certain content areas.

“It allows us to step back and say where are we and where do we need to be in the best interest of students,” she said.

Other districts say they may entirely scrap the proficiency-based learning concept.

Following the July passage of L.D. 1666 to make the system optional, school committees and superintendents around the state are debating how Maine high school students should be schooled to prepare them for college, jobs and the military. At the time the new system was adopted, 54 percent of Maine high school graduates needed remedial schooling before they could enter community college.

“The mixed message is going to be hard to sort out for folks,” said Steven Bailey, executive director of the Maine School Management Association, which works with superintendents and school boards across the state.

The mixed message is going to be hard to sort out for folks.”

— Steven Bailey, executive director of the Maine School Management Association

Bailey said most superintendents and school boards want to continue working toward proficiency-based diplomas and were hoping lawmakers would work out problems with implementation of the system. Many of them have put six to eight years of work into changing to a system based on students demonstrating mastery of content before they can move on.

When Gov. Paul LePage signed the bill July 10, he rolled back one of the key education initiatives of his administration. Although superintendents see the legislation as giving them more time to assess the system, the bill’s original sponsor fears it will have the effect of repealing the effort entirely.

“Once you turn a ‘shall’ to a ‘may’, it’s a kinder, gentler way to repeal proficiency-based (diplomas),” said Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, during an April work session on the bill.

In remarks sent to the Legislature after he signed the bill to make it optional, LePage said the system didn’t work the way he thought it would.

“The implementation of the original proficiency bill moved us in the opposite direction of what I intended when I signed it,” he wrote.

LePage said he hopes the Department of Education continues to work toward implementing “standards-based education” but that he also has “concerns about implications and unintended consequences.”

Department of Education spokeswoman Rachel Paling said via email that the department shares LePage’s concerns and is “in the process of determining how best to support schools going forward.”

The implementation of the original proficiency bill moved us in the opposite direction of what I intended when I signed it.”

— Gov. Paul LePage

Eight school districts awarded proficiency-based diplomas this year and one of the two scheduled to award them in 2019 – RSU 16 (Mechanic Falls, Minot and Poland) – has used a proficiency-based system for years and will continue to do so, said Superintendent Kenneth Healey.

“We’re not changing anything,” said Healey. “We’re keeping it the way it is.”

The other school system on the list for 2019 is Falmouth. Superintendent Geoff Bruno did not respond to phone calls or an email asking for comment, but told The Forecaster in March that even if the Legislature repealed proficiency-based diplomas it wouldn’t change what’s already happening in Falmouth.

Before passage of the bill to make it optional, the Department of Education said 10 districts would be ready to award proficiency-based diplomas in 2020. And the rest – about 90 – would be ready by 2021, which was the original deadline for all school districts to comply.

Although Auburn started developing a proficiency-based diploma system before the Legislature mandated it in 2012, Grondin said her district chose a 2021 deadline because it was fearful that it would not have enough time to implement it. WIth that deadline looming, the district switched to a 1-4 grading system last school year that upset and confused parents, leading the district to recently decide to go back to a 50-100 grading scale, she said.

“We’ve taken a couple of steps back to go forward,” Grondin said. “The important work is still there. This allows us to back up and adjust what we’re doing. The other system was in place for 200 years and it’s not easy to change.”

Also moving ahead …

MSAD 6, based in Buxton, is on track to award proficiency-based diplomas in 2020 and has no plans to change course, said Superintendent Paul Penna. The third-largest school system in Maine covers Buxton, Hollis, Limington, Standish and Frye Island.

“It won’t have any effect on us,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of work planning it. We’re going to continue on.”

Penna said in his district, teachers and building principals have worked to build a system where “benchmarks are clearly defined.”

In northern Maine, Madawaska Superintendent Gisele Dionne has been working with other nearby districts – MSADs 27 and 33 – to move toward a proficiency-based system. In an email, Dionne shared a summary of a recent discussion among school leaders that indicates they want to work with teachers, parents, community members and school boards to help everyone understand the work ahead.

“The pairing of proficiency-based education and proficiency-based diplomas in Maine may have undermined the ability of school units to effectively address policy and communication issues in a simultaneous manner,” which led to “confusion and frustration, especially in the area of grading.”

I don’t want people to jump the gun and throw the baby out with the bath water on this one.”

— Biddeford Superintendent Jeremy Ray

Regardless, the superintendents expressed a desire to build on what they described as extensive work on the system. Madawaska and MSAD 27 – Allagash, Eagle Lake, Fort Kent, New Canada, St. Francis, St. John Plantation, Wallagrass, Winterville Plantation – are on the state’s list to award the diplomas in 2020. MSAD 33 – Frenchville and St. Agatha – is slated to do so in 2021.

“Proficiency-based education is here to stay,” they write.

Biddeford Superintendent Jeremy Ray said his district had been on track to award proficiency-based diplomas in 2020 and that he will now ask school committee members how they want to proceed. The district is using a dual grading system, which means parents and students see both grades based on a 0-100 scale and 1-4 grades.

It’s been a lot of work to get the system up and running and L.D. 1666’s passage may mean Biddeford will take more time to implement it, he said.

“I don’t want people to jump the gun and throw the baby out with the bath water on this one,” he said.

Parents upset by the system say there’s no data to show that it leads to better outcomes for students, that they find the 1-4 grading system that some districts have adopted to be confusing and arbitrary, and they are worried transcripts based on the system won’t be easy for college admissions officials to understand.

Some of them also have raised concerns about the amount of out-of-state money that has come to Maine to implement it. More than $13 million has been awarded to various school districts to support proficiency-based learning, along with $8 million in taxpayer money from the state.

Jeff Romano, whose 17-year-old son Anthony attends Hall-Dale High School in Farmingdale, said he’s been frustrated with the system for six years. Regional School Unit 2, which encompasses Dresden, Farmingdale, Hallowell, Monmouth and Richmond, started using the system even before it was mandated in 2012 and was held up as an example of success, Romano said.

“I wasn’t a big fan of what I saw back then and the more I’ve seen, I like it even less,” he said.

Romano said the system doesn’t hold students to firm deadlines and pushes them all to achieve mediocrity, not excellence.

“There are wishy-washy timelines with no real teeth,” he said. “That’s not the way life works.”

And for parents who want to understand how their child is doing in school, the progress reports – the way report cards are now described – don’t make any sense to parents who aren’t steeped in the lingo, he said.

“The language used is completely foreign to people who aren’t educators,” he said. “It may as well be written in a different language.”

Up in the air

For months, the future of a proficiency-based learning system has been in doubt, as lawmakers discussed whether to give districts more time to comply, whether to make it optional or whether to scrap it entirely. And a Facebook group of frustrated parents, Mainers Concerned About Proficiency Based Learning, picked up more than 1,700 members and urged parents to lobby legislators to repeal the system.

When it hit the floor of the House and Senate, various lawmakers in each chamber used parliamentary-delay tactics to try to gain momentum for their position. During the July Senate debate, Langley gave a passionate speech in support of keeping the system.

“In all reality, I probably shouldn’t be here,” he said. “I was the son of the town drunk. When you grow up on the wrong side of the tracks, school is a difficult place.”

This bill uses a machete to make the changes where a scalpel is needed.”

— Jeremy Ray

He said children who come from poor families are judged differently in school, making it harder for them to succeed. A former culinary arts teacher himself, Langley said a system that rewards students for their performance ensures all students have a fighting chance.

“This bill uses a machete to make the changes where a scalpel is needed,” he said.

In response, fellow Education Committee member Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, said lawmakers had to balance those who were “fiercely advocating for outright repeal” with those who want the system to stay in place. Allowing districts to choose whether to implement it seemed like a reasonable solution, she said.

“The report before you today was the best answer a majority of the committee could get to on a bipartisan basis to thread the needle of the emotional arguments on both sides of the issue,” she said.

In a recent interview, Millett said the system suffered for years because of a lack of leadership from the Department of Education. Lawmakers tried to address various problems with the system, including how to handle special-education students, and spent hours trying to find solutions. She’s worried that some districts “put in place things not as robust as they need to be” and hopes that successful districts will demonstrate how to implement it.

But in her mind, it’s time for the Legislature to now focus on early-childhood education, a component of the original bill that was dropped before passage in 2012.

“We need to make sure all children show up at school equally ready to learn,” Millett said. “Those first eight years of life are so critical to a child’s future.”

After LePage signed the bill into law, Langley wrote in a July 27 column in the Bangor Daily News that “as adults, we failed” when it came time to stand up for making sure students could meet state standards.

“Holding the adults accountable puts a lot of pressure on those in charge,” he wrote. “It is uncomfortable to be held accountable, but that’s what it means to be an adult.”

While the Senate offered the most tension in the legislative debate, Rep. Heidi Sampson, R-Alfred, led the charge in the House. Sampson, a longtime opponent of proficiency-based education while a member of the State Board of Education, first asked fellow members of the Education Committee to fully repeal the system, then worked with Millet during a committee work session on the compromise to allow districts to opt-out.

The new system was one of three major education initiatives championed by LePage, along with charter schools and a system to give all schools A-F grades.

Proficiency-based learning was designed to be the next step following the mid-1990s adoption of Maine Learning Results, a set of standards in different subject areas.

Across the country, 16 states have considered and to some extent adopted what the National Conference of State Legislatures describes as competency-based education. Many created pilot programs or competitive grants to give local school districts the flexibility to try this new approach to education. But Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine all took a much more aggressive approach, passing laws to require a switch to proficiency-based diplomas, according to a September paper on the topic from NCSL.

Changing course?

Some parents in York, which started adopting some of the tenants of proficiency-based learning four years ago, are hopeful that efforts to elect two school committee members who oppose the system — and the start of their new superintendent Goscinski in July — will mean an end to the system.

“I want to get rid of PBD altogether,” said Julie Bishop Edminster, a parent of four children in York schools. “I do think we have a shot.”

I want to get rid of PBD altogether. I do think we have a shot.”

— Julie Bishop Edminster, parent of four children in York schools

Edminster said when things started to change four years ago, she and other parents complained to the then-superintendent who “looked at us like we were crazy.” But Edminster and others didn’t like that their children were coming home with 1-4 grades, there was new terminology, new reporting systems and that teachers spent a lot of time converting grades from traditional A-F to numerical ones.

As someone who travels to colleges and universities to implement software and as a parent with a student who is looking at colleges, Edminster said she’s asked admissions offices how they handle proficiency-based transcripts. She was told by one official they are set aside to be considered later and another emphasized how important a transcript is for a student looking to get into college.

“Our kids are competing against kids in Massachusetts, California and Nebraska,” she said. “You can’t make it difficult.”

Goscinski met with a group of parents to hear their concerns about the proficiency-based system. He said he wants to meet with school administrators to talk about current policy and plans to make a recommendation to the school committee in mid-August or early September.

“When you’re looking for this type of mandate, it takes years to get everyone on board,” he said.

He said it’s his understanding that the prior administration rushed to put something in place to meet the Legislature’s deadline.

“I’m not convinced we’re all using the same language,” Goscinski said. “2021 was coming so quickly it caused folks to rush and not have enough dialogue about what this would be. I want to really talk to the community and teachers to see if we really want to go through with it.”

Lewiston parent Rob Lyons, whose son will be a high school sophomore in September, said the school has backed away from 1-4 grades and is trying to implement a mix of traditional and proficiency-based scoring, which he sees as another experiment. He wants his son to be able to go to the college of his choosing and worries this type of system will put him at a disadvantage.

“Right now we’re playing with kids’ lives and their futures,” he said.

He encourages parents in other districts to get involved to learn how or whether their schools are planning to adopt this type of system.

“Write letters, make phone calls, go to school board meetings, speak up,” he said.

Bailey, head of the Maine School Management Association, said districts that want to move forward with proficiency-based diplomas will need support from the state Department of Education, the Legislature and the governor’s office. While some districts have dedicated curriculum coordinators or others to oversee the implementation, many can’t afford to pay staff to lead the effort, he said.

Bailey said he understands the confusion and concern from parents about the 1-4 grading scale and the possible impacts on college admissions. But he said educators across the state want to best serve all students – not just those who will be going on to college.

“Our efforts should be to increase or improve the performance of all students,” he said. “Our goal was to increase opportunity for all students across the state regardless of ZIP code.”


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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