AUGUSTA — Maine’s high school graduation requirements would be overhauled under a bill endorsed Tuesday by a legislative committee.

The bill, which would first affect students graduating from high school in 2017, would no longer allow students to earn credits merely for time spent in school. Instead, they would have to demonstrate proficiency in every skill and topic in the eight content areas and five guiding principles of the Maine Learning Results.

Adopting the new approach — usually called proficiency-based or standards-based education — could allow schools to eliminate age-based grade levels and promote students based entirely on their mastery of the standards.

Thirty-five school districts and high schools in Maine are already on the path toward such a system, said Donald Siviski, state superintendent of instruction.

The bill, L.D. 1422, was reported out of the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee on Tuesday with a unanimous, 11-0 “ought to pass” recommendation.

Securing passage of the bill is a top priority in the Department of Education’s strategic plan, which was unveiled last week and calls for Maine’s public schools eventually to adopt a standards-based education model.

“We’re talking about outcomes being the constant and time being the variable, and now we’re talking about putting a deadline on it,” Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen said Tuesday.

Representatives of Maine’s professional educator organizations told the education committee that most of their members support standards-based education in theory, but they worry about schools having the resources to change curriculum and train staff in personalizing education for every student.

“We all know this is where we need to be,” said Dick Durost, executive director of the Maine Principals Association, “but we’re still concerned about getting to the point where we can meet all eight content areas in terms of staff and capacity.”

The professional groups’ representatives and some legislators also said they want to avoid repeating the mistakes of previous mandates, including the 2007 school consolidation law.

Maine Education Association President Chris Galgay said the bill reminds him of the Maine Learning Results law, passed in 1997 with the goal of moving all schools toward a diploma system similar to what’s proposed now.

“But now what I hear in this building all the time is, ‘There are no resources,’” he said. “The difference between now and then is, ‘Oh, by the way, you’re going to have to do this on your own.’“

The Maine Learning Results law required school districts to develop their own research-backed assessments to determine whether students were meeting educational standards. No school in the state has reached that goal, according to the education department.

Many school districts, particularly smaller ones in rural communities, found themselves without the staff or knowledge to develop the local assessments, officials said. Gov. John Baldacci enacted a moratorium on the requirement in 2006.

The deadline of 2017 proposed in the new bill would affect this year’s seventh-graders, and high schools would need to have curriculum, new transcripts, technology and staff training in place by the time those students enter high school in 2013.

Legislators said they understand that most school districts are stretched thin right now.

To accommodate schools that can’t meet the deadline, the education committee adopted a waiver provision. Districts could obtain waivers only until 2020.

But the bill does not specify what happens if a school district fails to meet either deadline.

Although the bill does not include any funding for school districts to implement the new diploma system, the Department of Education hopes to help districts in other ways.

Bowen said he’ll ask the Legislature to supply money for a state fund that assists regional professional development centers.

The department also is preparing a website for educators to share resources such as curriculum standards and syllabuses.

 

Kennebec Journal Staff Writer Susan McMillan can be contacted 621-5645 or at: [email protected]