BANGOR, Maine — The Bangor School Committee on Wednesday voted to pursue a one-year waiver of a law that requires high schools to award diplomas under a new system by 2018. Under the law, students entering ninth grade in the fall will have to demonstrate that they have mastered the state’s learning standards in order to graduate in 2018.
“In my opinion it would be ethically and morally wrong to tell our incoming freshmen that they’re going to be graded on a system that has not been tested and proven reliable,” said Bangor superintendent Betsy Webb at the school committee meeting.
The committee voted unanimously to support Webb and Bangor High School Principal Paul Butler in their effort to pursue a waiver.
“Our feeling is we can’t create that and perfect it at the same time,” Butler told the school committee.
“We’re close,” he said and explained that Bangor High School teachers have been developing a new curriculum and assessments that will enable students to graduate with a proficiency-based diploma, as the law requires. Bangor High School already uses this system, which it calls a “blended system,” in math, science and English, but the law expands the system to eight different subjects.
Butler said that the school is ready to comply with the law, but would have a better system in place if they are given another year to implement it.
“A one-year waiver provides the necessary time for BHS to develop, review, pilot, refine and finalize the core elements of the blended system,” Butler said in a memo addressed to Webb, which was distributed at the committee meeting. Webb said a version of this memo would be submitted to the Maine Department of Education as part of their request for a waiver.
DOE Commissioner Jim Rier said his department is still figuring out the process by which districts will be able to apply for waivers. He said that waivers may be offered in specific subjects, but that districts would most likely not be able to become exempt from the entire law.
“I’m not going to be issuing blanket waivers,” he said on Thursday morning. “We are considering looking at different content areas.”
The content areas are English language arts, world languages, mathematics, social studies, science and technology, visual and performing arts, career and education development and health, physical education and wellness. Each content area has a set of standards that students will be expected to master in order to graduate. In 2011, the state Legislature voted to align the state’s standards with the Common Core, a more rigorous set of standards that have been adopted by 44 states and the District of Columbia.
Webb said part of the challenge of adopting the proficiency-based system is making sure teachers in different classrooms agree on what it means to meet a standard. Teachers must communicate the new, more rigorous standards to students and parents in a consistent way.
Webb said she thinks districts across the state need more time to implement the system.
“I really believe the whole state should take a one-year waiver in order to build a system that will guarantee success,” she said.
“Ultimately having a law that requires proficiency in all eight content areas is a challenge,” Rier said. “We need to be focused on that and not make 2018 2022.”
It is up to districts to decide how they will get every student to meet every standard.
“For the most part, the manner in which these standards are taught and the method by which proficiency is assessed is a local decision,” a DOE statement dated Feb. 13, 2013, said.
Already, school districts across the state are taking different approaches.
At Edward Little High School in Auburn, there are two ninth-grade algebra classes that have adopted a fully proficiency-based approach.
A student in one of those classes can only progress through the course after she has shown the teacher that she has mastered a skill, according to Auburn School Department curriculum director Shelly Mogul.
That means the 20 students in each class are at different places in the algebra curriculum. By the time they finish ninth grade, some students will have already moved on to the geometry curriculum, while others will still be working their way through algebra. In 10th grade, the students will pick up wherever they left off.
Mogul said that the new system is “really about when you’re proficient, you’re done, and not when you have an average of 75.”
Under the old system, “You can earn credits in a course and you may or may not have been proficient on everything in that course,” she said.
Next year all the ninth-grade math classes will operate this way.
Mogul added that Auburn, like many districts, will likely be looking into pursuing a waiver for the world languages content area, because ensuring that all students can communicate effectively in a language other than English would require hiring additional staff.
Mogul said the Auburn School Department would be making this change regardless of the law.
Under proficiency-based education, the district is able to offer “a guarantee of what our students will know and be able to do when they graduate,” she said.
Superintendent Suzanne Godin of the South Portland School Department said her school district has been phasing in a proficiency-based system since the 2005-06 school year. The district started the system in their K-5 schools and implemented it fully in sixth grade and partially in seventh and eighth grades for the first time this year.
“The law itself supports the plan that we have in place except for the time frame,” she said.
She said her district will also be pursuing a one-year waiver so that they can continue implementing the new system grade by grade.
School districts are not the only entities attempting to slow the implementation of recent changes made to Maine’s education system. Earlier this month, the Maine Education Association called for a moratorium on the use of new standardized tests which the state will use to assess whether students are meeting the state standards and expressed reservation about the Common Core.
In a statement released Thursday, Rier defended the standards.
“We believe the current standards are strong,” he said. “That said, concerns have been raised. As a result, the Department decided last fall we would spend time in 2014 — likely starting in the summer — working with the public, teachers and leaders from higher education, the business community and the military to consider state-specific improvements to the current standards.”