Higher Standards

Posted May 14, 2009, at 6:32 p.m.

While many other states have tied high school graduation to passing a standardized test, Maine has smartly focused on having students demonstrate their understanding of a wide range of topics. Progress has been slow, but the state can take a large step forward with passage of a bill that would require competency in several subject areas, rather than simply taking a prescribed number of courses, to earn a high school diploma.

Currently, a student must take four years of English, two years of math, science and social studies, one year of fine arts and physical education and half a year of health education to be eligible for a high school diploma. LD 1325 moves from this “seat time” requirement toward a so-called standards-based diploma.

Under the bill, students must meet standards in English, math, social studies and science and technology. They also must meet the standards in one of these three areas: visual and performing arts, world languages and health and physical education. They must partially meet standards in the two other areas. Standards for each subject area are set forth in the state’s Learning Results.

In addition, students can meet the standards in a variety of settings beyond the walls of high school, including apprenticeships, virtual learning, alternative education programs, career academies and adult education.

These new standards would be in place by 2012 and apply to students graduating in 2016.

The bill is scheduled for a work session today in the Legislature’s Education Committee.

A group that studied a standards-based diploma for Maine considered requiring mastery of all eight subject areas, but felt this was too ambitious.

Some arts educators worry that the new standards would devalue arts and music. If LD 1325 passes, even students who did not chose art as an area of core competency must still demonstrate that they partially meet the standards in this area. This means a student must understand concepts and be able to demonstrate them at least partially, which is an improvement over merely attending a class to fulfill the required seat time.

Those in the arts community have good reason to fear that funding for art and music education will be reduced as schools face budget cuts. Requiring all students to meet standards for visual and performing arts won’t solve this problem, however.

Moving Maine toward a standards-based diploma will increase its eligibility for federal school improvement funds, Education Commissioner Susan Gendron said. Maine has applied for federal “Race to the Top” funds. This pool of more than $4 billion will go to groups of states to raise their standards. Eligible projects must be able to spend the money within 18 months. Passing LD 1325 will better position Maine to get this money, according to Commissioner Gendron.

It also would update Maine’s graduation standards to a higher, more meaningful level.

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