AUGUSTA — When today’s seventh-graders graduate from high school, they will have earned diplomas by showing what they know, regardless of how long they have been in school.

If a student can finish high school in fewer than four years, that will be fine. If it takes longer, that will be OK, too.

That’s the premise of L.D. 1422, a bill expected to get final legislative approval this week and be sent to Gov. Paul LePage, who supports the measure, for his signature.

The House passed the bill 90-51 Monday, with no debate. More votes in the House and Senate are needed for final passage.

The bill says that to earn a diploma after Jan. 1, 2017, a student would have to show proficiency in English, math, science and other areas set by their local school board. Schools could get waivers from the requirements until 2020.

Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, the bill’s sponsor, said, “I always thought it was kind of a cruel hoax to give a student a diploma, and a pat on the back as they walked off the stage, when they haven’t mastered reading, writing or arithmetic.”

Langley, who taught culinary arts for 30 years, said he was shocked to see how many high school juniors and seniors couldn’t write well enough to create a menu. Some didn’t understand how to divide or do fractions.

In Maine, there is no exit exam for graduating seniors, or end-of-course exams that require students to prove they have mastered a subject area. As long as students get passing grades, they move to the next level and eventually get diplomas.

That was supposed to change in 1997, when the state instituted Maine Learning Results, a set of standards in various subject areas.

Supporters of L.D. 1422 say it has taken until now to get legislation passed to require schools to move to a system that calls for students to prove they have mastered basic subject areas.

Schools would be allowed, but not required, to trade letter grades for number grades, or eliminate age-based classes altogether. Schools would have to allow students to show what they know in a variety of ways, from traditional tests to portfolios, performance, exhibitions and projects, the bill says.

The state Department of Education has pushed for the change because 54 percent of high school students who go on to community colleges need remedial course work before they can take college-level classes, said the department’s spokesman, David Connerty-Marin.

That course work costs students money they often can’t afford to spend, and it doesn’t go toward college credits, so many students get discouraged.

“We need to give them a diploma that says, ‘This is based on what you have learned, not the amount of time you have spent learning it,’” he said. “Right now, we say, ‘You did your time and you didn’t fail. You get your diploma, but that doesn’t mean you have the skills you need.’

The Maine Education Association, the union that represents teachers, did not take a position on the bill, nor did the Maine School Superintendents Association.

In the Legislature, the measure has been supported — and opposed — by both Democrats and Republicans. Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland and a former co-chairman of the Legislature’s Education Committee, supports the bill.

“What L.D. 1422 does is strengthen Maine Learning Results by allowing local schools and school boards to create standards,” he said. “Now a diploma will have more meaning.”

Langley said vocational and technical schools have used a form of standards-based education for a long time.

For example, his culinary arts students got transcripts to take to potential employers, clearly listing that they knew how to make a soup, or decorate a cake.

Regardless of whether a student did it right the first time or needed two or three tries, an employer would know that he or she had demonstrated the skill needed to do the work, he said.

Rep. Maeghan Maloney, D-Augusta, an opponent of the bill, has a son in seventh grade. His class would be the first that’s subject to the new regulations.

Maloney said top-down educational mandates from Washington, D.C., or Augusta haven’t worked in the past, and she doesn’t think they are a good idea now.

“My concern is that we’re forcing school districts to undertake a program that we don’t know works,” she said.

School districts can adopt such systems now, and some have, including Hall-Dale Schools in central Maine. Maloney doesn’t see a need to require it statewide.

“In school districts where it has been successful, it’s because of parents and teachers deciding they want to implement this program,” she said.

A week ago, the bill failed in the House because it needed two-thirds support, as an unfunded mandate to school districts.

Before it got to the Senate, the bill was amended to provide a small amount of funding to schools, so it would no longer need two-thirds support to pass.

Two Democrats — Rep. Sharon Treat, D-Hallowell, and Rep. Devin Beliveau, D-Kittery — tried to amend the bill in the House, but both ideas were rejected.

Treat wanted to require districts to set up plans for teacher training and for outreach to students and parents. She also wanted to clarify that school districts would maintain control of grading systems and how students are advanced from one grade to another.

Beliveau, a teacher, wanted to add one day of teacher training to the school year to ensure that teachers are ready to change to a new system.

State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at: scover@mainetoday.com