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New High School Proficiency Standards Passed By Legislature
04/09/2012   Reported By: Jay Field

High school students statewide may soon have to show proficiency in a variety of subject areas to receive a diploma, under a bill that was initially rejected, but then sent back to the Maine House and passed this morning. School districts have until 2017, 2020 with a waiver, to move from a diploma based on the number of years in school to one awarded for meeting academic standards. Supporters say it will ultimately produce better-prepared students statewide. But some lawmakers remain concerned that there isn't enough long-term funding available to ensure that local districts can implement a new system and provide the intensive teacher training needed to make it successful.

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Unfunded mandate. They're two of the most dreaded words in local education circles across the country. School districts, be they large or small, urban or rural, don't generally like to be told to make major policy changes, only to learn, after-the-fact, that there isn't enough money to carry them out and sustain them. Concern that this could happen with the move to a standards-based diploma is a big reason why the Maine House initially voted down the the bill.

"If the state is to mandate this big change statewide, learning from past experience should be lesson number one," said Rep. Sharon Treat (D-Hallowell). Her district includes RSU 2, one of a handful of Maine school systems that are already experimenting with standards or proficiency-based education. Throughout the district, spanning the towns of Hallowell, Dresden, Farmingdale, Monmouth and Richmond, kids choose their own assignments. They complete them at their own pace and move on the next level when they demonstrate a certain level of mastery, not when they reach a certain age. It's the same basic approach that LD 1422 would take statewide. To be successful, it requires, among other things, intensive investment in professional development for teachers. In its current form, the bill now promises to provide some money that districts can use for teacher training. But that wasn't enough for Treat, who tried to add another amendment Monday.

"It requires the transition plans, that each school district are already required to develop, to include a detailed plan for teacher training in the new system, including training for teaching in multi-age classrooms," said Treat.

The amendment failed, as did another aimed at teacher training, supported by another Democratic Representative. Seth Berry of Bowdoinham pointed to the amount of money set aside for professional development by Maine districts already experimenting with proficiency-based education.

"It was significantly more than what is budgeted for in the amended version of this bill that's before us," said Berry.

But in the end, it wasn't enough to keep Berry and eighty-nine other Democrats and Republicans from voting for the overall bill. The measure's passage, on its second go around through the House, means it now goes back to the Senate, where it's all but certain to prevail. Steven Bowen, Maine's Education Commissioner, enthusiastically supports the bill.

We set state standards for what students should know and be able to do in 1997. We established out state learning results," Bowen said. "We're finally getting to the point where we're going to say students really do need to know and be able to do the things in the learning results to get a diploma. And I think it's many years overdue and we're glad we're moving forward."

Under the law, students would no longer be bound by age and grade-related requirements. If a sixteen year old demonstrates proficiency in math, english, science, social studies and the other learning standards, he or she would get a diploma. Conversely, a twenty or twenty-one year old could still be in high school, working away, if they had yet establish mastery in all areas. Bowen said there will likely be many ways students will be show their ready to graduate.

"We're not going down the road of a regents exam or some type of a high-stakes exam at the end of your high school career to demonstrate that you qualify for a diploma," Bowen said. "We didn't want to go down that road. Instead, what we want to do is work with out educators to create a series of assessment tools across and so forth, across all of the content areas. And we want students to have a role in creating assessments."

Students could potentially be able to give presentations or do other creative projects to demonstrate mastery. Bowen said the department has already begun looking at possible options. Teachers, meantime, would be free to continue with existing methods, as long as students reach proficiency. If the Senate signs off on the bill, as expected, school districts will have at least five years to make the transition.

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