State education officials say school districts can now take some extra time to implement new proficiency-based graduation requirements if they need it.

In a letter Wednesday to the state’s superintendents, Education Commissioner Jim Rier spelled out six ways to apply for extensions, so districts can delay the new requirements for as long as two years.

“Increasingly, the department has been hearing from you about the complexity of developing quality proficiency-based learning systems,” Rier wrote. “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.”

This fall’s high school freshmen – the class of 2018 – were to be the first to graduate under the new standards, the product of a state law passed in 2012.

Under the law, students much demonstrate proficiency in eight specific areas outlined in the state academic standards known as Maine Learning Results: English, math, science and technology, social studies, health education and physical education, visual and performing arts, world languages, and career and education development.

The options offered by the state now allow districts to get extensions until as late as 2020, but they must demonstrate progress toward implementing the requirements, whether through written reports to the education department, site visits by department personnel or other options.

The broader the request, the more a district will have to do, the letter notes.

School districts may apply for the extensions beginning in July.

“I think what (Rier) has done will put some minds at ease,” said Nancy Perkins, chairwoman of the state Board of Education. “There have been some concerns in some districts that they don’t have the resources to do what is needed. Some districts have accomplished a great deal in this area. Others haven’t.”

In Portland, where public hearings will be held in the next two weeks on proposed graduation requirements, Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk said Wednesday that he isn’t sure the district will need the extra time, “but it’s good to have that option.”

“We need to look and see what the process entails, but we do welcome it. We want to do this and do it well,” Caulk said. “We have to give our teachers time to do the work, and that’s going to take additional resources.”

Several reports on the new law indicated that implementing the new graduation system will be complex. Researchers said proficiency-based diplomas have the potential to raise education standards but noted that there is no empirical evidence that it is a proven method. Only a handful of states have similar diploma requirements, including Colorado and Ohio.

Rier said the state agreed to offer the extensions after working with education groups, including the Maine School Superintendents Association, “to get a better understanding of the work that has been done by districts to date and what waiver process may be most productive to supporting their future implementation progress.”

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

Maine Education Association President Lois Kilby-Chesley said the proficiency-based graduation requirements are just one of many changes facing teachers.

“The MEA has been concerned about the number of new initiatives that have been placed on classroom educators as the scrutiny and attacks on public education have increased,” she said in a prepared statement. “At this point it is time to take a breather and determine which, if any, of the changes will benefit our students. Perhaps the Commissioner has now recognized that the value of change comes from the quality of the work, not from the quantity of revisions, and what will prevail is an opportunity for schools to implement the new diplomas in a way that allows our kids to succeed.”

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

ngallagher@pressherald.com