State supports proficiency-based diplomas, offers districts implementation flexibility

AUGUSTA – The Maine Department of Education affirmed its commitment to the state’s students being awarded diplomas based on proficiency but announced today it would give school districts more flexibility in meeting a requirement to do so by 2018.

In 2012, Maine enacted landmark legislation making high school graduation starting in 2018 dependent on students having demonstrated mastery of learning standards in eight content areas, including math, reading, science and social studies.

The reform’s intent is to improve student performance and ensure high school graduates have the knowledge and skills needed for college and career success.

Currently, the gap between the percentage of students who graduate from high school and those who are proficient in math and reading is 38 percent, and a third of Maine graduates who go onto college here need basic remedial courses.

While most school leaders and members of the public support the shift to proficiency-based graduation, Education Commissioner Jim Rier said school districts are feeling the crunch as their high schools prepare to welcome a ninth-grade class expected to be the first to graduate with the new diplomas.

“Increasingly, the Department has been hearing from you about the complexity of developing quality proficiency-based learning systems,” Commissioner Rier wrote in a letter to superintendents on Wednesday. “Even districts that have eagerly pursued implementation and believe deeply in the value of these systems in strengthening teaching and learning admit they may not be ready in all content areas by 2018.”

To support implementation being done right at the local level, the Department has developed six options by which districts can apply for extensions. Maine DOE previewed those on its website today, and intends to issue final guidance including the extension application process in July.

Under a provision in Maine’s Basic School Approval Law, the Commissioner of Education has the authority to grant school units waivers from the proficiency-based diploma requirement if certain conditions – to be defined by the Department – are met.

In an effort to ensure the extension process facilitates continuous progress toward proficiency, the broader a district’s request, the greater the work required of them, as well as the level of structured support that will be provided by the Maine DOE.

“You’ll note we use the word ‘extension’ rather than waiver because none of these paths remove the requirement in Maine law to making the important transition to awarding proficiency-based diplomas. Instead, they provide the time and support districts say they need to undertake the thoughtful, systemic change needed to ensure quality implementation,” the Commissioner’s letter said.

Superintendents and principals provided feedback on the Department’s options before they were readied for release.

“Maine schools are committed to proficiency but want to do it right,” said Maine School Management Association Deputy Executive Director Robert Hasson. “We appreciate the Department’s flexibility.”

In conjunction with the extension announcement, the Department also released a readiness inventory that will help districts assess their progress and next steps. The results of that survey, to be released this summer, will provide the first statewide snapshot of where districts are and inform what support the Department should provide.

While the law and the state’s tradition of local education control puts the responsibility for implementation and related policy development on local school units, the Maine DOE is charged with providing technical assistance.

Already, the Department has offered workshops around the state for hundreds of educators; launched a portal of web resources related to proficiency-based education; developed an online Center for Best Practice featuring case studies and resources from Maine schools; and distributed $2 million to support transition costs.

For more information about Maine’s move to proficiency including extension option details, case studies of proficiency-based learning in action and transition tools, visit www.maine.gov/doe/proficiency.

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