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With Legislature Adjourned, Future of ‘Proficiency-Based Diplomas’ Is Unclear

Robbie Feinberg
Maine Public
Teacher Betsy Bremner works with student Mozart Oliveira at Spruce Mountain Adult Education in Livermore Falls in a class designed to get students ready for the rigors of college

The legislature may have adjourned Thursday morning, but some educators and parents still have hope that the House and Senate will eventually act on a bill removing a state mandate for schools to implement "proficiency-based diplomas." It is unclear what effects such a change would have on local schools.

Over the past two months, teachers, parents and school officials testified before the state legislature’s Education Committee concerning the issue of proficiency-based diplomas. While some administrators support the initiative, many teachers and parents said they were worried that schools hadn't been given nearly enough guidance to implement the requirements approved six years ago, and some worried that certain students might not graduate under the new system.

Democratic Sen. Rebecca Millett says after hearing those concerns, a majority of the committee's members last week supported an amended bill that would no longer require the proficiency-based diplomas. It would instead let schools choose whether or not they want to implement the new diploma system.

"I feel like we're threading the needle here," Millett told the committee last week. "And I feel like we're being responsive to very passionate feelings on both sides of this issue."

It's unclear if the bill will even be heard in the House and Senate, let alone if it will pass. But if it does, the future for "proficiency-based diplomas" in Maine's is still murky.

Over the past few weeks, superintendents in towns including Falmouth and Eliot have said that they anticipate keeping proficiency-based diplomas, even if the state doesn't mandate them. Eileen King, the deputy executive director of the Maine School Management Association, says many superintendents around the state feel the same way.

"I think what superintendents really want to see is a good, strong model of proficiency-based learning that does dovetail into a proficiency-based diploma," she says.

But Maine Education Association President Lois Kilby-Chesley says her organization supports getting rid of the diploma mandate. She says over the past few months, she's seen teachers and parents speak out with their concerns with the proficiency-based system. She says she hopes districts will carefully consider the feelings of parents and teachers in assessing what's best for their students.

"I truly believe that communities are going to look at it and decide what's best for them," Kilby-Chesley says.

Critics have also long worried about whether the new diploma requirements might prevent students with disabilities from graduating, but they say the new bill does address most of their concerns.

However, even if schools do choose to stick with proficiency-based diplomas, some educators say the bill to remove the mandate leaves them with major questions that have gone unanswered for years.

Jeff Shedd, the principal of Cape Elizabeth High School, says the state has never defined what it actually means for a student to be "proficient" in a subject such as math or English.

Shedd says his comments only reflect his own opinions, not his school district's. But he says the Department of Education should define and assess proficiency statewide.

"The problem is, you've got one learning result," Shedd says. "But you've got 168 school defining the bar for each one of those learning results."

No matter what the legislature decides, the Department of Education says it knows it needs to do more to support local schools and offer them guidance.

Mary Paine is the department's director of strategic initiatives.

"I think this gives us a chance to be a little more targeted," Paine says. "Think a little bit more about what people might need, have further conversations."

For now, it's still not clear when or if the legislature will go back into special session to take care of unfinished business, including the diploma bill.

For disclosure, the Maine Education Association represents most of Maine's news staff.

Education reporting on Maine Public Radio is supported by a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.