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How Maine’s Department Of Education Adopted Proficiency-Based Standards For High School Diplomas

Robbie Feinberg
Maine Public
College Transitions teacher Betsy Bremner works on math problems with student Mozart Oliveira at Spruce Mountain Adult Education in Livermore Falls. The class is designed to get students ready for the rigors of college.

Students entering high school this year in Maine will be the first in the country to graduate with a new kind of diploma. Instead of amassing a set number of credits, they’ll need to show that they’re “proficient” and meet certain standards.

It’s a change that’s been nearly a decade in the making. But some educators are still worried about what it will mean for students and teachers.

Mozart Oliveira scribbles furiously on a packet of math problems at Spruce Mountain Adult Education, a brick building along the banks of the Androscoggin River in Livermore Falls. With a small calculator and a folder chock-full of practice problems, Oliveira listens intently to his teacher, Betsy Bremner. They start with fractions, then work their up to negative numbers.

But for Oliveira, who has been out of high school for more than a decade, it has been a struggle to catch up.

“It’s been so long,” he says.

“That’s OK,” Bremner says. “Just think of money. Spending and spending.”

“So you’re saying, I have $10, take away one?” Oliveira says.

“I spent a dollar, then 10 more dollars,” Bremner says. “How much am I missing in my wallet now?”

Three years ago, Oliveira arrived at Spruce Mountain without a high school degree. But he began taking classes and passed his high-school equivalency exam, called the HiSET. Now he wants to go to college, too, to support his three kids with a more reliable job.

“I remember one shift, I would work from, like, 3-5 in the morning,” he says. “And you gotta get sick of that. What’s the point of destroying my body when I could use my brain, do something I like? So when I had that contemplation with myself, I was like, ‘I’m just gonna do it.’“

But as Oliveira labors over these math problems, he’s finding he has to know a lot more in order to advance. If he’s not prepared, he may end up in remedial math and English classes, which often don’t count for college credit.

Central Maine Community College President Scott Knapp says with that obstacle in the way, some students may become discouraged and drop out.

“Because we know with some students, they’ll just turn their back on it and say, ‘No. That’s not what I wanted,’” he says.

And remedial courses aren’t limited to adult students like Oliveira. In fact, more than 10 percent of students who head to Maine’s public universities from high school end up taking them. For community college students, it’s more than 40 percent.

Ed Cervone, the executive director of the business-led education group Educate Maine, says the statistics point to a problem.

“When we looked at a combination of test scores, remediation rates at higher ed institutions, and from reports from employers, it was clear that all that were being graduated weren’t quite ready,” he says.

The proposed solution in 2011, says former state Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen, was to develop new requirements to graduate. By simply compiling enough “seat time” in core school subjects, as in four math classes, four English classes and so on, Bowen says students were leaving high school with large gaps in what they knew.

But he says a proficiency-based diploma would fix that problem.

“As opposed to kids having to sit in a seat in an algebra class for a full year. And pass the algebra class,” Bowen says. “And because they passed their algebra class, and because they passed their other classes, we’re now going to say they’re ready to get their high school diploma. That’s what the change was.”

Under the new system, schools would determine what a graduating student should know, and then students would have to demonstrate that they actually know it. The state had already created a set of these standards back in 1997 called the Maine Learning Results. But back then, they were mostly designed as a tool for teachers and administrators and weren’t specifically tied to graduation.

Then, in 2009, the state Department of Education offered training to school districts in “customized learning,” which used proficiency-based education. Within two years, Bowen and another state official, Don Siviski, were pushing the idea across the state, talking at conferences and mailing out books about proficiency-based education to every Maine superintendent.

Siviski says he would tell officials that with so many students rated as “not proficient” on standardized tests, schools had a moral imperative to embrace this new approach.

“So my personal mantra is, all kids can learn to high levels,” he says. “Learning is messy. Every kid has a different pathway, and it’s up to us to figure out that pathway and help kids find success.”

At first, it was a tough sell for some lawmakers. Justin Alfond, the co-chair of the Legislature’s Education Committee at the time, says he was initially skeptical of the proficiency-based diploma bill. But visits to classrooms, like one in the Gray-New Gloucester school district, where young students worked in teams and solved problems together, brought him around.

“You could see the excitement and joy of accomplishing something,” Alfond says. “It made me say, ‘This is happening. This isn’t just theory.’ Children, students are doing this right now. I got to watch it all unfold.”

Ultimately, in 2012, other lawmakers came on board and the law passed by a wide majority. Maine became the first state in the country to require students to graduate based on competency rather than on credits. Other states, like Colorado and Vermont, have since passed similar laws.

But in Maine, implementing the law has proven harder than many anticipated. Maine Education Association President Lois Kilby-Chesley says her organization still has concerns about the effects on special education and teacher workloads. She says recent turnover within the Maine Department of Education has not provided reassurance.

“You get an answer from one person. Then that person’s not there anymore,” she says. “Then you go to the next person. And a lot of the questions are the same.”

In October, the department withdrew new rulemaking for parts of the law because of continued concerns from educators around similar issues.

But some school districts are already fully proficiency-based, while others are still just getting off the ground. And state Department of Education Proficiency-Based Education Specialist Diana Doiron says Maine plans to stay the course.

“We have to take these first steps if we want to continue to grow,” she says. “We can’t figure this all out in our heads. It involves human beings. And human beings are dynamic individuals. No two of us are alike. It’s in this work together that we’ll get there over time.”

Despite the rocky start, many educators still say they’re excited about the promise of proficiency-based education and have embraced new practices that they say are improving schools across the state.

Those new education trends will be the topic of a series, “Lessons From Oak Hill,” which looks at the issue through the yes of one rural Maine school district over the course of the year. The first story launches later this week.

For disclosure, the Maine Education Association represents most of Maine Public’s news staff. Education reporting on Maine Public Radio is supported by a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.