You have probably known a student struggling in school. Was he or she struggling to write a narrative story in English class or not doing the required multiplication homework in math? Was the student sliding through, aiming to pass but not put in the work?
Under a nontraditional way of instructing students and measuring their progress, called proficiency-based education, students aren’t allowed to slide through with a C-. They must show mastery of various academic skills to pass a class.
At top-ranked, proficiency-based Casco Bay High School in Portland, for example, students know from the beginning what learning standards they must master, such as the ability to analyze a central idea in a text or understand the concept of probability. Through various assignments that include student-directed projects, students demonstrate whether they are making progress toward the standard. They have many opportunities to show what they know.
The goal is for all students to actually learn the material. So when they graduate, they are equipped not only to succeed in college or a career but as citizens of a complicated world. Work habit skills — meeting deadlines, participating in class — are tracked separately. They don’t get averaged into student grades, but they do matter; if students are working hard but not mastering skills, they receive more time to learn the material.
The idea that students should master the material isn’t a novel one. But too many students today are continually promoted through, and out of, school without learning the skills they’ll need to be successful.
Proficiency-based education has been in the news recently because the University of Maine at Presque Isle announced it will switch to such a system, starting with its general education curriculum next fall. It’s also an important topic for all Maine public schools, which, starting Jan. 1, 2018, must grant diplomas to students who have demonstrated proficiency in meeting set standards in areas such as English, math and science. The legislation prompting the change, sponsored by Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, became law in May 2012.
Not all schools will develop systems like the one at Casco Bay, but they will have to ensure students master certain basic subject areas before they graduate. On the SAT in 2012-13, only 48.9 percent of students achieved proficiency in critical reading and 48.1 percent in math. In the fall of 2013, 52 percent of freshmen entering the Maine Community College System needed remedial help.
Yes, teachers are under immense pressure, and schools deal with many challenging problems. But can’t everyone agree Maine schools can do better? It’s not a matter of having “bad” teachers or schools but, rather, an ineffective system that allows students to graduate and still not know how to spell or do basic math.
Switching to a proficiency-based model will have its difficulties. The new law doesn’t dictate how districts should determine the way students reach proficiency. It only requests districts have “multiple pathways” — such as tests, portfolios and projects — for students to show their knowledge, and it requires the Maine Department of Education to provide money and guidance for the transition. It will largely be up to local districts to set their own course.
There are a number of tools they can use. One is the education department’s compiled list of case studies describing how Maine school districts started their proficiency-based systems, so other districts don’t have to start from scratch.
The state should also ensure districts have the best support possible. A 2013 report by the Maine Education Policy Research Institute at the University of Southern Maine provided some good, specific recommendations. For instance, schools will continue to need professional development opportunities to help them improve their proficiency-based systems, not just in the beginning. They would benefit from having a learning management system that allows teachers to share curriculum materials and monitor student progress toward proficiency. And Maine must resolve the question of whether districts should adopt different proficiency standards, as they are currently doing.
The new law will, we hope, improve graduates’ preparedness for life after high school. It’s also clear its implementation will vary. For the initiative to work, it will need continued refinement.