BAR HARBOR — Maine’s system of proficiency-based standards for high school graduation is seriously flawed, but fixes proposed by the Department of Education won’t necessarily help, in the opinion of Julie Meltzer, director of curriculum, assessment and instruction for the Mount Desert Island Regional School System (MDIRSS).
The Maine Legislature in 2012 passed an education reform law that requires students to attain proficiency in eight learning areas in order to receive a diploma. That requirement is to go into effect for this year’s freshmen class, which will graduate in 2021.
The eight subject areas in which they are supposed to demonstrate proficiency are English language arts, math, science and technology, social studies, world languages, visual and performing arts, health education and career and education development.
The Department of Education recently proposed changes to make it easier for students to meet learning results standards and qualify for graduation. Instead of requiring students to attain a single standard of proficiency, they would be certified as having met “levels of proficiency” in the eight subject areas.
The proposed amendment to the law states, “Levels of proficiency [would] align with the complexity and cognitive demand” of each content area.
Meltzer said it defies logic to make graduation contingent on proficiency in so many different content areas.
“It would take something like 22 years for kids to actually do all of them,” she said. “It’s ridiculous. It’s absurd.
“Nobody does all the learning results,” she continued. “We know no one is doing it because you can’t do it. So, districts have been picking and choosing.”
Meltzer said the Legislature last year failed to adopt amendments to the proficiency standards law that would have been improvements, such as reducing the number of essential learning areas from eight to four.
“There is no testing of the theory that [proficiency in all eight content areas] is what you need to live a successful and full life,” she said.
School districts across the state have taken three different approaches to the proficiency law, according to Meltzer.
“Many of the wealthier, well-performing districts that don’t get a lot [of money] from the state are doing what they always did,” she said. “They’re not doing anything different, but they’re calling it whatever it is the state says they have to call it.”
“Then there were a lot of districts that said, ‘We’re just going to wait and see what we absolutely have to do.’”
Meltzer said another group of school districts, including the MDIRSS, have tried to adopt parts of the law that they think are worthwhile.
“We asked, ‘How can we create a system that actually is going to improve education for kids?’ And everybody figured out their own set of standards, their own professional development, their own direction.
“We [in the MDIRSS schools] haven’t done anything that we didn’t think was good for education, and we’ve been able to improve a lot of things,” Meltzer said. “It’s still a work-in-progress, but we have a more solid teaching, learning, support, tracking and reporting system than we’ve ever had.
“If we have to deal with these [proposed] amendments, MDI will, as long as I am here, continue to try to do what we think is best for kids and try to make the value of our educational system stronger,” she said.
She noted that the concept of proficiency-based education dates back to the early 1990s.
“We as a state have not rethought what we’re trying to accomplish with our educational system since then.”
And she said that, as with the original law, the proposed amendments were drafted without a thorough, statewide discussion of educational goals and a consensus on how to achieve them. In addition, she said, it isn’t at all clear what some of the proposed amendments mean.
“What does it mean to have multiple pathways for career education at elementary, middle and high school, for example? I don’t know what that even means.”
Meltzer said she and other curriculum coordinators around the state were “really energized by the idea that we would hold ourselves accountable for certain things we felt were important for kids to leave school with.”
But she said the Department of Education has lacked the money, personnel and leadership to help school districts implement a uniform program of proficiency-based learning standards.
“We can’t pretend that we’re all doing it the same way or that all districts are even doing it,” Meltzer said. “There’s so much cynicism about it across the state. People say this is just another crazy education idea that will go out of style.
“But if it completely goes away, that will be sad.”
Meltzer said the proposed makeover of the proficiency-based graduation law started with a simple amendment to delay implementation for a year.
“But as soon as you have an amendment, that opens up the entire statute,” she said. “So that’s when the DOE rushed in with this whole set of amendments.
“I think the legislators are just astounded that there’s this mess. They never intended to make the mess. I think they genuinely wanted to improve education in Maine.”
Now, she said, “I think the education committee is just sick of talking about this. They never expected all of this furor.”