Maine will join seven other states in a pilot program that aims to increase high school graduation rates and college readiness by instituting a “European model” of instruction and assessments.

The program is slated to begin next year, according to David Connerty-Marin of the Maine Department of Education.

Among the changes these states will implement are an emphasis on mastering skills and allowing students to progress through school at their own pace. Students would be able to “test out” of high school at the end of 10th grade and enroll in college.

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Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, New Mexico and Kentucky will also take part in the pilot project.

“If kids are clear about what they need to achieve, they become much more engaged in their education,” Connerty-Marin said Wednesday. “It’s rigorous coursework aimed at preparing students for college-level work.”

He said that Maine Education Commissioner Susan Gendron will be meeting with school superintendents and principals in the next week to explain the program, which is being organized by the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit National Center on Education and the Economy.

No Maine schools have signed on yet, but NCEE leadership said in a press release Wednesday that 10 to 20 schools in each of the eight states will start the pilot program for the 2011-12 school year.

Participation among Maine schools and students will be entirely voluntary, Connerty-Marin said.

The news that Maine had signed on to the pilot program came as a surprise for some, including Maine Education Association President Chris Galgay.

“For the last couple of hours, I have been on the phone trying to find out about this,” Galgay said Wednesday afternoon. “I’m very frustrated. I know few of the details. It sounds absolutely like a major initiative, but it also sounds like a top-down decision — one of many made with no input from practitioners in the field.”

Galgay’s association is the professional organization that represents the state’s teachers, who he said will be pivotal if the initiative is to succeed.

“This is a think-tank in Washington who came up with this,” he said. “I’m not questioning the commissioner’s sincerity on this. I just know that to have anything work, you’ve got to have everybody at the table to agree on the goals.”

Connerty-Marin disagreed that the initiative is “top-down.”

“If districts don’t want to participate, they don’t have to,” he said. “This is an opportunity for districts that are looking to provide another pathway to students. It’s very in line with what we’ve been talking about over the years. There’s no imposition of anything here.”

National Center on Education and the Economy President Marc Tucker said in a Wednesday morning press conference that participating states will be working with his organization with the help of a financial grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

“By introducing these Board Examination Systems in pilot high schools in these states … we will begin a process that will ultimately prepare dramatically more students for college success and greatly reduce the high number of students who now take remedial courses in college,” Tucker said in a press release.

Board Examination Systems are in place in Australia, Denmark, England, Finland, France, Ireland, the Netherlands, Scotland, Singapore and parts of Canada and Germany. They typically consist of a core program of courses, a well-designed syllabus, exams designed to the syllabus and professional development for teachers, ac-cording to the NCEE press release.

Implementing this system could be a boon to Maine students, Connerty-Marin said. Maine already belongs to the New England Secondary Schools Consortium, which is focused on increasing the graduation rate to 90 percent and decreasing the need for remedial courses in college. Maine’s 2007-08 high school graduation rate was 83.5 percent.

“All the programs that are part of the NCEE initiative include a lot of feedback throughout the year, which allows for more of the support that kids need,” he said. “It makes school a lot more relevant for them.”