Maine Families Concerned About Proficiency-Based Diplomas Harming Kids' College Chances
Right now, high school seniors around Maine are waiting nervously for their acceptance letters from colleges. And their chances depend in part on grades.
But as educators in Maine continue the transition to new, state-mandated proficiency-based diplomas, some have swapped out the traditional grades of A’s, B’s and C’s with 1’s, 2’s and 3’s. Some parents are concerned that could affect their kid’s chances of being accepted to college.
South Portland High School sophomore Max Saffer-Meng isn’t one to speak out too much. He’s quiet and deliberate with his words. But when his school moved to a new system of grading, with 1’s, 2’s, and 3’s, he grew frustrated.
“In the four-point system, if you don’t get a 4, you get a 3 out of 4, which is a lot lower mathematically than a 4, and if it’s not always clear how you can get a 4, it makes it hard to get a grade that’s satisfying,” he says.
The new grades are part of South Portland’s transition to a proficiency-based diploma, a new state requirement that will go into effect for the class of 2021. The idea is that for students to graduate, they have to be “proficient” in up to eight subject areas.
While some schools are keeping A’s and B’s to measure that proficiency, others, like South Portland, are now using a 1-4 system, with “3” meaning proficient.
Saffer-Meng and his family don’t like the new system for a variety of reasons. Max’s mom, Dara Saffer, isn’t necessarily worried for her son, who’s near the top of his class. But she is concerned that by distilling an entire class’ worth of content down to just a 2 or a 3, colleges won’t be able to really judge what a student knows.
“That more detailed and nuanced information that a traditional system would capture is now just being whitewashed over,” she says. “So how are you going to get the information that those kids need, to get what they need to succeed?”
Saffer isn’t alone. Administrators from across the state say this is the worry that parents bring up over and over again: Will colleges understand these new grades? Eric Waddell, the principal of Kittery’s Traip Academy, says he still hears it all the time from parents.
“Genuinely concerned,” he says. “Like, ‘Oh my gosh, do we need to think about going to a different school? A different district?’“
But according to those in the college ranks, parents don’t need to be worried yet. Chris Richards, the director of recruitment at the University of Maine in Orono, says colleges have always dealt with unusual grading systems from private or progressive schools.
“Some schools may have five different grading scales at one school,” Richards says. “One’s a seven-point scale. One’s five. One’s four. And you’ve got to decipher all of that and work through that to make the best choice for a candidate.”
To do that, he says, his university relies on a lot more than just grades. Extracurriculars, letters of recommendation and standardized test scores are all incorporated, too. And Richards says counselors are also in constant contact with area high schools to stay up-to-date so they can understand these new grading systems and accurately assess students.
“There are a lot of phone calls,” Richards says. “Even still, there are phone calls back-and-forth.”
Even with that reassurance, though, some questions remain. A recent report by USM’s Center for Education Policy, Applied Research and Evaluation found that some admissions counselors feel that without enough clarity, the new systems could adversely affect some high-achieving or borderline students.
In South Portland, Curriculum Director Rebecca Brown says her district is wrestling with this right now. She says under the school’s new grading system, a 3.0 GPA means something much different than a few years ago.
She says a 3 used to mean a B — pretty good. But she says under the school’s new system, that 3 now represents a much higher level of learning. So currently, the district is reshaping its school profile that it sends to colleges to let them know what kind of grades make a South Portland student a high achiever.
“That this student is in the top 10 percent of their class,” Brown says. “Even though the score may appear lower than what a college would expect from a student in the top 10 percent of their class.”
At the University of Southern Maine, Director of Admissions Andrew King says his team is working to compile all this information from districts across Maine into a large database that it hopes to use to accurately compare these new grading systems. It’s a lot of work, he says, but he thinks it’ll lead to fairer outcomes for students.
“So it’s better for making that decision,” he says. “But it’ll take longer.”
And King and other educators say the new system could actually provide a fuller picture of college applicants.
In Kittery, Traip Academy Principal Eric Waddell shows an example of a transcript his school is planning to adopt. He says that instead of just showing a list of classes and grades, students now receive scores for individual aspects of each subject, as well as for their behavior and work ethic.
Waddell says by separating everything out, colleges can more easily see a student’s strengths and weaknesses.
“First of all, we’re being very clear about what we want our student to be able to do,” he says. “And we’re being very clear about what we want our students to be like.”
Ultimately, these transcripts will vary for every district across the state. And while many parents continue to have questions about this transition, colleges say with enough communication, truly qualified students shouldn’t have a problem getting admitted.
Education reporting on Maine Public Radio is supported by a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.