Timothy Jewell, a sophomore at Brewer High School, works on a greenhouse effect lab with his classmates in biology class, Jan. 11, 2019. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

School districts in the Bangor area are making it easier for students to earn their high school diplomas after a six-year statewide push to make diplomas more rigorous, and Brewer is the latest district considering a similar change.

A number of districts have changed their graduation requirements in the six months since the state retreated from its mandate that schools issue “proficiency-based diplomas,” reverting to diplomas based on students earning passing grades and accruing enough course credits. That’s exactly the type of system state legislators and then-Gov. Paul LePage’s administration sought to move away from in 2012 when the proficiency-based diploma requirement became state law.

Bangor returned to a high school diploma based on course credits soon after lawmakers passed the law last summer making proficiency-based diplomas optional. Hermon made a similar change last year, along with Regional School Unit 22 — which covers Hampden, Newburgh, Winterport and Frankfort.

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In Brewer, the city’s school board has started considering a hybrid system. Even though students would have to meet credit requirements and post passing grades to graduate under changes proposed for the city’s graduation requirements, a Brewer High School transcript would also list the progress students have made toward reaching proficiency in the state’s academic expectations, or standards.

“I think if we had gone to the proficiency-based diploma with eight content areas and levels of proficiency that were quite high, I think a lot of kids would not have gotten a diploma,” Hermon schools Superintendent Gary Gonyar said.

[LePage signs bill to repeal proficiency-based diploma mandate]

The proposed change back to a grade and credit system in Brewer won’t necessarily make it “easier” to graduate, Superintendent Cheri Towle said.

Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

“I think we made [diplomas] more attainable for all students,” she said of the proposed policy. “We still have a rigorous diploma. We still offer all those same courses. But I think we’re going to reach more kids for their specific needs with this new policy change.”

‘What we want kids to know’

Even as schools change what it takes for students to earn a diploma, district leaders in Greater Bangor say teachers continue to use proficiency-based education in their classrooms, with the system’s clearly stated learning targets that students have to meet and the variety of options students have to show they’ve mastered course material.

“I think proficiency-based education made it very clear on what we want kids to know and be able to do,” said Towle, who wrote her Doctor of Education thesis on implementing proficiency-based education.

Brewer teachers in recent years have started teaching lessons with the academic expectations students have to meet foremost in mind. And they’ve focused on offering students a variety of ways to show they’ve mastered course material, including projects, tests and papers.

That won’t change as the district considers switching to graduation requirements based on course credits and passing grades, Towle said.

Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

In Hermon, the schools are retaining a proficiency-based grading scale for students before they reach high school. That one-through-four scale reflects whether students have reached proficiency in a given subject area.

“Our classes, our courses and our instruction are going to be proficiency-based, but our graduation is going to be based on passing the courses,” Gonyar said.

A Bangor High School transcript will show students’ course credits and grades, but it will retain one component from a proficiency-based system: Students will be able to earn endorsements if they demonstrate proficiency in certain areas of learning.

“I think the trick is how do you hold on to the good stuff and not penalize students in the end,” Bangor Superintendent Betsy Webb said.

[How Maine hurt education by trying to reform it]

In turning away from proficiency-based diplomas but retaining some other changes brought about by the six-year proficiency-based push, Bangor-area schools fall into a “middle group” of school districts in terms of their reactions to the end of the diploma mandate, according to Amy Johnson, co-director of the Maine Education Policy Research Institute.

“They generally feel that some good things happened as a result of the policy, and they will do their best to maintain those improvements,” said Johnson, who is researching how districts have reacted to the policy change. “But they are also glad to have flexibility to pick and choose what they want to keep.”

Sticking points

In Greater Bangor, concerns about the requirement that students become proficient in a world language and that special education students largely meet the same requirements as all other students emerged as sticking points in the push toward proficiency-based diplomas.

Most students in the Bangor area are monolingual, Webb said. While learning a world language offers valuable exposure, she said, demanding proficiency in a foreign language by graduation would have been a challenge.

“To say you had to be proficient in all eight content areas to have a diploma is where I think the whole system across the state just started to show that it wasn’t going to work in the benefit of all children by 2021,” Webb said.

Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

With students in special education, Webb said, school districts didn’t have enough guidance from the state on implementing the proficiency-based diploma requirement.

“If someone is on an [Individualized Education Program], they’re going to learn the same content areas, but it’s within their ability,” Webb said. “In the credit-based system, they can still earn credits, but in the proficiency-based system they would have to be proficient.”

The switch back to a credit system has another plus, according to Webb: Colleges and universities understand credits, grade point averages and class ranks.

Back in Brewer, even with a proposed return to course credits and passing grades, Towle said she doesn’t want to make any drastic changes to drastic policies. That’s because Maine’s famously fluctuating education standards may change again, and Towle said she wants to keep things as consistent as she can for students and teachers.