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More Do-Overs and Fewer Tests: Some Maine Educators Worry About Graduates In 'Proficiency-Based' Ed

Rebecca Conley
Maine Public
Freshmen from Westbrook High School test a potato-powered car as part of the school's Work the Problem activity, which has replaced the school's traditional finals week in recent years.

Three years from now, high school seniors in Maine will have to demonstrate proficiency in math, English, science and other core subjects in order to graduate. 

In making the transition to these new, proficiency-based diplomas, some schools have moved away from midterms, finals and other tests, in favor of projects. But some educators fear that could erode some students’ test-taking skills, and their efforts to get into college.

It is a hot, humid afternoon at Oak Hill High School, but science teacher Erika Bonenfant can barely contain her excitement; it's frog dissection day. She cuts open a bag of the preserved creatures, pulling each frog out, one-by-one, and she helps her students cut into their skin.

Bonenfant is a big fan of these kinds of hands-on lessons in which students apply knowledge rather than reciting it back to her. As Bonenfant has transitioned to adopting the state's "proficiency-based education" standards, she has started turning to projects to assess her student's progress.

"Especially when the standard says, 'students create a model to depict something,’" Bonenfant says. "And it's really hard to have a test that is based around a standard that says, 'create a model.’ So I feel like there are some standards that probably still tie us to that project."

Earlier in the year, Bonenfant had her students write mock newspaper articles and legal opinions defending scientific theories such as the big bang.

"Some students just don't have an interest in science, like I do," she says. "So I'm trying to appeal to them in other ways. This was my way to, kind of, engage them."

She isn't alone in taking that approach. Some schools around the state have eliminated finals and midterms in their push toward proficiency-based education.

Alana Margeson, an instructor at the University of Maine at Presque Isle, says one of the principles of proficiency-based education is tracking growth and often allowing students to re-do their assignments until they get it right. She says finals may not fit that philosophy.

"So to have 10 percent of a student's final grade based on what they know on January 15th, when the focus is on growth and less on, let me put a pin in where you are right now, and give you an evaluative score, that could potentially be damaging at worst, and unclear at best,” Margeson says.

In what would have been finals week at Westbrook High School, 9th grade teachers instead held a medieval-themed escape room activity. To get out, students had to translate Old English riddles and create cars from potatoes.

Credit Rebecca Conley / Maine Public
Maine Public
Freshmen from Westbrook High School work together on a project as part of the school's Medieval-themed Work the Problem activity, part of the school's replacement for traditional finals week.

As students scramble around her, Principal Kelli Deveaux says she thinks the teamwork and communication that students show here is more valuable than a final exam.

"Quite frankly, it's a lot easier to just create a test with a multiple choice answer key," she says. "That took a lot more work, and I think it feels a lot more personal for the kids. And I think it's a better experience for them, overall.”

Yet many educators are worried that these trends could leave students unprepared for the world after high school, which still relies on single deadlines and high-stakes, such as tests like the SAT. In a 2018 report from the University of Southern Maine, many educators told researchers that because students can often re-do their work in a proficiency-based system, they were concerned that few students were learning the study skills needed for high-stakes tests.

"I think you've seen some of the frustration with the implementation of proficiency-based education, because they haven't been able to answer some of those questions," says Raymond Rice, the president of the University of Maine at Presque Isle.

The university has adopted pieces of proficiency-based education on its own campus. He says he feels the testing issue has cast doubts in some districts and has been a stumbling block in implementing the reforms.

"I think of some of the school districts here – one, in particular – is very proud of the fact that they help empower and create leaders, and that students go on to higher education," he says. "And they're concerned about ensuring that they don't lose that reputation, which is bound, to some extent, with those tests."

While many colleges are moving away from standardized tests in their admissions process, some Maine high schools are still trying to teach their students study skills in other ways. At Westbrook High School, Principal Kelli Deveaux says finals have gone away, but the school still holds SAT prep classes and enrolls students in early college courses to teach them those skills.

"Those experiences still exist," she says. "But they don't necessarily need to exist in the day-to-day, every class, every classroom, in our high school any longer."

Back in her frog-filled classroom at Oak Hill High School, teacher Erika Bonenfant says as the school year winds down, she's brought back tests – but only as a choice. She says after she transitioned to focus on projects, many students ignored deadlines and passed in their work late. So now if students miss a deadline, they take the test.

"Even when they move on from high school and go to college, they're going to have deadlines," Bonenfant says. "So I try to express how important that they're staying organized and they're meeting those deadlines."

And just as the school year comes to an end, proficiency-based diplomas are under scrutiny. Critics, including many educators, say schools haven't received enough support from the state, and fear that some students will not graduate.

This week, Maine's House and Senate are set to vote on a bill that would make the diplomas optional for schools across the state.

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