A national program to let high school students test out of school after the 10th grade and go straight to college has been approved by the Maine Department of Education. But so far, it has raised more questions than answers.

The program, a product of a Washington, D.C., nonprofit think tank called the National Center on Education and the Economy, is aimed at boosting secondary school graduation rates and college readiness.

Maine is one of eight states to join the voluntary program, but so far no Maine school district has agreed to participate in it. According to a department spokesman, the program would encourage schools to accelerate mastery of subjects and allow students to advance at their own rates.

The program is financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is also participating in the federal Department of Education’s ”Race to the Top” program, which supports the development of charter schools. In addition, the foundation is challenging schools to improve ”effective teaching” (see the column by Melinda Gates on the facing page).

Charter schools, while not universal solutions for the problems of under-performing systems, do have an overall record of improving student outcomes, even though Maine lawmakers have so far unfortunately rejected them.

This new program, however, follows a ”European model” of instruction and assessments that is designed to move students into higher education more quickly than the U.S. model has so far been geared to accomplish.

Maine Education Commissioner Susan Gendron is planning to discuss the new program with school superintendents and principals this week, but it sounds as if she may have a bit of a selling job to do — and with teachers’ union members, as well. The president of the Maine Education Association said last week he was concerned about the ”top-down” nature of the plan, which he said was ”made with no input from practitioners in the field.”

But the state spokesman said that, because the program was voluntary, districts with doubts didn’t have to participate. Still, a major question remains: Considering the substantial changes participating schools will have to implement in order to give their students this option, how many will decide to join in?

More information is certainly needed, and schools should ponder things carefully. This appears to be one of those times when ”look before you leap” is wise advice.