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Educators Worry Proficiency-Based Diplomas Could Keep Some Maine Students From Graduation

Robbie Feinberg
Maine Public
Interventionist Derek Cote works with a student on catching up in English at Oak Hill High School. Administrators hope that with Cote's work and other interventions, fewer students will fall behind.

Starting three years from now, high school students in Maine won’t be able to graduate by just earning enough credits — they’ll need to have mastered a set of standards in subjects including math, English and science. Some schools are taking new approaches to help students meet the new proficiency standards — but some educators are still worried that a large percentage of students may not be able to make the grade.

This is the latest installment in the yearlong series Lessons From Oak Hill.

At Oak Hill High School, interventionist Derek Cote spends a lot of his time just making phone calls. He calls teachers and tracks down students who may be behind and need a lot of credits to graduate. He serves as a kind of coach who helps students catch up on work.

On one early weekday morning, Cote sits down with one student who has fallen way behind in almost all of her classes. It’s not due to a lack of effort, she says — she tells Cote she works long shifts to earn money after school and often can’t concentrate in class.

“That’s a challenge,” he says. “What time do you work?”

“I work from, like, 4-10,” the student says.

“So you have a six-hour shift tonight?” Cote says.

“Well, not tonight,” she says. “But tomorrow, and Thursday, and Friday.”

She lists a backlog of schoolwork, too: a project in history, two essays and two quizzes in English.

“How about geometry?” Cote says.

“A lot of stuff,” she says.

That is a lot of work, Cote tells her. But he also reassures that by working together, they can get caught up. He grabs a piece of paper and lists out each task for her, one by one.

“So would you like to get caught up?” Cote says. “Because if you’re willing to work harder, I will bend over backwards to get you back on track and make sure you are ready to graduate on time. I will call in extra teachers.

“If you’re willing to work harder, we can bring this back on track for you,” he says. “OK?”

“OK,” she says.

And getting these students on track is important. The state’s new proficiency-based diploma law requires students to show that they’re proficient in up to eight content areas by 2025 — that means mastering everything from math to English and foreign language.

With Cote on the staff and a new approach to intervention, Oak Hill’s administrators believe they can meet the goal. But across the state, many educators and officials are worried.

“The kids who struggle will continue to struggle,” says Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association, the union that represents teachers. “I truly believe some of them will never get a diploma.”

Kilby-Chesley says her organization has long been worried that the new standards may be too hard for some students to meet.

“They might have pulled it off with D’s and gotten a diploma,” she says. “But if we start looking at, ‘Does not meet the standards.’ Then they may never meet the standards. I think that they do get penalized.”

Those worries extend into specific districts, too. At RSU 16 in Poland, the high school was the first in Maine to go fully proficiency-based back in 1999. But in the years following the passage of the state law, Superintendent Tina Meserve expressed concern that nearly a third of students might not meet the high standards.

“Certainly we don’t want 30 percent of our students not getting diplomas,” she says. “That is a key milestone for many experiences after high school.”

Meserve says her concerns have eased somewhat in recent years because districts have been allowed some flexibility in how they set their graduation standards. But she says she still worries that students in her own district may not be able to reach proficiency in every subject area — specifically in subjects like math or Spanish, where many rural schools struggle to even find teachers.

“We still worry about students in foreign language,” she says, “and a small group of students that need additional time in math. Students who maybe need a remedial math classes their freshman year to get them ready for high school math.”

Exacerbating the problem, some officials say, are rules proposed by the Department of Education in September, which say every student must master the standards at the same of rigor. If they can’t, they could wind up with just a “certificate of completion” rather than a diploma.

Educators and advocates have expressed fear that those rules would be too strict and could make it impossible for many students to graduate, including some with learning disabilities.

“If we don’t get it right the first time, there’s going to be a generation of kids that are going to suffer,” Dick Durost, executive director of the Maine Principals Association, said in October. “If this is going to pass the straight face test at the local level, if we’re holding them where we’ve set the bar, are we setting kids and families and communities and educators up for failure? And I think as we get further and further into this, that’s the concern.”

Diana Doiron, proficiency-based education specialist for the DOE, says the department has heard these concerns loud and clear. She says the department ultimately made the decision to start over on the rules.

Over the past three months, Doiron says she has talked to groups of educators, parents and students across the state as she drafts new rules.

“Having conversations — debates perhaps — as we try to redraft a rule that addresses that and provides for equity,” she says.

But many educators are still concerned that Maine schools don’t have enough time. State Rep. Victoria Kornfield of Bangor has proposed a bill for the current legislative session to delay the law another year.

“It’s just that I do not want students to get hurt from decisions we make in Augusta,” she says.

DOE says the new rules will begin to be drafted over the next few months and will hopefully be ready for public comment by spring.

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