The class of 2018 at high schools throughout Maine will be the first to graduate under a proficiency-based system mandated by a 2012 law. But with that class just months from starting its freshman year, the implementation of the system is proving to be a daunting task, requiring technical and financial resources school districts are finding difficult to obtain.
Absent those resources, many schools — largely in poorer districts — will not hit the goals outlined in the law. The state, which has done well to raise school standards, has to follow through on this effort, with additional guidance and funding, to make sure it is successful.
By 2018, high schools will be required to issue diplomas based on student proficiency in certain academic areas.
The proficiency-based diplomas are aimed at replacing a system that graduates students as long as they survive 13 years of school and meet the minimum number of credits. That way of doing things has been blamed for handing diplomas to students who are not ready to graduate, as evidenced by the 37 percent of Maine students who got diplomas last year without meeting state standards in math or reading.
The law, however, leaves it up to individual school districts to decide how the students can gain and demonstrate proficiency in a subject.
That means districts have to formulate and implement a plan that retools how students are taught, assessed, graded and passed on to the next grade level, and they have to do it in time for the system to properly judge the high school work of the class of 2018.
To accomplish that significant feat, the state is providing annual grants of less than 1 percent of a district’s operating budget. Last year, that amounted to $2 million statewide.
In some ways, the strict timeline is necessary. Some Maine schools have been using a proficiency-based system for years, and others have been slowly implementing aspects of a system. Others, however, are just recently getting started, and if a change is needed, the law and its deadlines had to push those schools to act.
But without more funding — and in this time of tight budgets, there isn’t much funding available — many schools will fall short. They won’t be able to afford the extra professional development and staff interaction time that is necessary for such a seismic shift in educational approach, nor will they be able to provide the time and personnel necessary to intervene with students who are not meeting the standards.
The districts also won’t be able to obtain the technical expertise and infrastructure needed to properly track and analyze student proficiency in order to respond in the right way.
The annual cost of the transition varies from district to district. In a study completed by the University of Southern Maine’s Maine Education Policy Research Institute, one Maine superintendent pegged the cost at $60,000 per year, another at $500,000. One principal said that turning to standards-based education is the “only focus for this school” and it “takes all the resources.”
For districts that have been moving toward a proficiency-based system for some time, or that have enough local resources to play catch-up, the price tag for the switch is attainable. But the others run the risk of falling behind.
The state is right to push for higher standards for Maine students. Now officials have to make sure all schools get the resources they need to put those standards in place.