April 20, 2019
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Making proficiency optional undercuts Maine’s goal of equality in education

Christopher Cousins | BDN
Christopher Cousins | BDN
Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen asks questions of students at Gray-New Gloucester Middle School on Friday, June 1, 2012.

Maine lawmakers took a big step last week toward making proficiency-based high school diplomas optional. This is a step in the wrong direction.

Maine has been working toward proficiency-based diplomas for nearly 30 years. There are two key elements to this work. The first is an assurance that a Maine high school diploma means its recipient is equipped not only to succeed in college or a career but as a citizen of a complicated world.

The second is that this standard apply to all Maine students, no matter where they live, no matter how much their community is able to spend on education.

By making proficiency-based diplomas optional, lawmakers would undermine, if not completely eliminate, this requirement of equity. Lawmakers should not turn their backs on decades of work to raise — and equalize — Maine’s education standards.

On Friday, the Legislature’s Education Committee voted 10-3 to endorse an amended bill to eliminate a state requirement that all public schools issue proficiency-based diplomas beginning with the 2021 graduating class. Schools could still issue such diplomas but they would not be required.

This simply means that schools that are already setting high standards will continue to do so while many schools that are struggling to reach the proficiency goals will stop this work. This unfairly penalizes many students based solely on where their families live.

Maine has worked for decades to equalize K-12 education across the state so that all students can meet the standards. Much of this work has involved changes to the state’s funding formula, such as the implementation of Essential Programs and Services to determine what the state should be funding so that students have access to the same educational opportunities no matter where they live.

This was also closely tied to ongoing efforts to improve and equalize education. State lawmakers adopted Maine’s Common Core of Learning in 1990. It established 151 goals for student learning and spelled out what skills and subject matter students should know when finish high school. This was well before the controversial national common core standards were developed.

Lawmakers, educators, business leaders and others then worked for years to develop the criteria for determining whether students were meeting the state’s common core goal. Called the Maine Learning Results, these academic standards became the law in 1997.

Measuring whether students met the Learning Results became a big stumbling block and remains so for proficiency-based diplomas, especially at the local level.

In 2012, Gov. Paul LePage signed into law a policy requiring proficiency-based diplomas. Under that law, starting Jan. 1, 2018, school were to grant diplomas to students who have demonstrated proficiency in meeting standards in areas such as English, math and science.

“Rather than continually lurch from one reform idea to another, we need to set common goals, establish benchmarks, put needed policies and procedures in place, and then maintain a focused effort over a number of years, staying on the course we have laid out,” then Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen told lawmakers in support of the Legislation, which LePage called one of his major education policy initiatives.

Since then, districts have struggled with measuring how students meet the standard, which has again led to frustration among parents, teachers and administrators. In 2016, lawmakers pushed back the start date for proficiency-based diplomas to the 2020-21 school year.

During this time of ever-changing policies and goalposts, teachers and administrators have repeatedly said they want and need consistency: Pick an outcome and stick with it, they said.

How schools should reach the proficiency goalpost is complicated, as teachers and schools contemplate new grading systems, supports for students who need additional help and a myriad other issues.

These complications don’t mean that proficiency-based learning and diplomas are wrong for Maine. And, it certainly doesn’t mean that the state should abandon its long path toward proficiency-based diplomas.

A short delay in implementing proficiency-based diplomas, especially for some subject areas, is reasonable. Repealing or significantly weakening these standards is not.

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