Proficiency-Based Learning and Diplomas Under Review

By Lura Jackson


Six years after the state of Maine implemented proficiency-based learning – a switch that required the transition to a new curriculum, among other requirements – the program remains in a state of flux as amendments and challenges continue. The topic was discussed at a Calais school committee meeting on March 6th.

Proficiency-based education has been gaining favor across the nation, but few states have made headway in implementing it. Maine was the second state to adopt the approach following Rhode Island. When it was introduced in 2012, schools were given time to make the transition; Calais began to do so in earnest in 2015 to avoid being penalized or having restricted access to state funds. This year is the first year in which the incoming freshmen at all high schools will be participating in the program from the start of their high school careers. 

The goal of mandating proficiency-based learning across the state, according to the Department of Education’s [DoE] website, is to “ensure that students acquire the knowledge and skills that are deemed to be essential to success in school, higher education, careers and adult life.” Students are rated in their proficiency in eight subjects (math, English, social studies, science and technology, foreign languages, arts, and career and education development) rather than being required to take specific classes to fulfill credit requirements. In addition, students much reach proficiency in dependability and reliability, problem solving and decision making, and adaptability and flexibility. The DoE website also outlines that students that do not meet standards will receive additional instruction, and that they will not be advanced if they continue to fail to meet the standards. 

Supporters of proficiency-based learning contend that it is needed in the state because students are being graduated from high school without having a solid grasp on key subjects, including math and English. As a result, the DoE reports that one third of Maine students require remedial classes in college. Opponents of the system point out that there is not a state standard for proficiency and it is left to local districts to determine. 

According to Superintendent Ron Jenkins, one of the most significant oversights of the system was related to how it penalizes students in special education. That oversight was addressed in the most-recently proposed amendment to the program, which allows for special education students who have met the goals of their Individual Education Plan to receive diplomas still.

“They’ve pretty much finally accepted that special education has a role in this,” Jenkins summarized. “You can’t just not give a diploma to special needs kids that have followed their program for 12 years. That part was a complete oversight on their part, very early-on.”

The amendment to proficiency-based learning is currently under review by the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee. While not an amendment to the original bill itself, it is an amendment to a bill that was recently submitted that would delay the required implementation of proficiency-based learning by a year, meaning that it would be the 2019 freshman class that would be the first to graduate across the state with proficiency-based diplomas. “It’s not finished yet, but the current direction they appear to be moving is that there will be levels of proficiency that will be accepted,” Jenkins said.

Additional changes under consideration are the allowance of transcripts with the diplomas. School committee Chairman Bob Greenlaw asserted that it is the transcript, not the diploma, that tells the story of the individual student. “A diploma is a diploma, but our transcripts are what define us,” Greenlaw said, in support of the addition.

Another change being reviewed is the reporting of proficiency to parents, which Jenkins said has been confusing so far. “There’s so much confusion with this 1-2-3-4 business that they have been using. They are trying to work out a way to demonstrate to parents what that means,” Jenkins said.

A consortium of schools in Washington County, including Calais, has received a $138,000 grant, Jenkins reported at the meeting. The grant will provide additional resources to each of the schools to enable their staff to participate in professional development, with a special focus on improving access to proficiency-based implementation. Jenkins said the grant will allow for much-needed tools and resources to be available for the participating schools. The consortium has booked speakers and a schedule is taking shape based on feedback from the Harvest of Ideas, a county-wide gleaning of best practices and needs. When committee member James MacDonald asked if the failure of some schools to support the program would impact it in the future, Jenkins said it would not. “Our goal has always been… to have it open to everybody in the county with the understanding that there may be one or two districts that don’t participate.”

More information will be made available on the approved changes to proficiency-based education following the state committee’s review.