AUGUSTA — Amid concerns that current graduation requirements are too broad and “practically impossible” for many students to achieve, a bill was introduced Monday that would scale back what Maine high school graduates need to know to graduate.

Under a state law passed in 2012, students must demonstrate proficiency in eight areas: English, math, science and technology, social studies, health and physical education, visual and performing arts, world languages, and career and education development. Those new graduation standards are scheduled to take effect with the class of 2018, although many school districts have waivers to delay them.

The bill, introduced by the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, would require all students to be proficient in math, English and two other areas of their choice – but not all eight.

The bill was introduced the same day a special advisory council on proficiency briefed the committee on the graduation requirements.

There have been steady, vocal concerns raised about the ability of students to meet proficiency in all eight areas, and that the rigorous graduation standard would result in many students not getting a diploma.

The council, appointed by the Legislature and made up of teachers, state education officials and business representatives, has been meeting monthly to come up with a recommendation to “right-size” the graduation requirement, said chairwoman Betsy Webb, superintendent of the Bangor School Department.

“We are not going to reduce standards,” Webb said, adding that the committee bill is in line with the council’s work. She noted that all schools would still offer students courses in all eight content areas, and that students may get proficiency in all of them if they choose.

But to deny a diploma to a student who is proficient in six or seven areas, but not the eighth, “doesn’t make sense,” Webb said.

Critics long warned that it would be impossible for the original law to be carried out. Using the foreign language requirement as an example, educators said the state doesn’t have enough teachers to allow for all graduates to reach proficiency and be conversant in a second language.

“The law was well intended but it’s gone too far,” Webb said.

Acting Education Commissioner Bill Beardsley, who presented the council’s report, agreed, calling the proposed changes “rigorous but achievable.”

The committee’s Senate chairman, Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, said the tough graduation requirements are “really practically impossible” and there is “almost universal recognition” they need to be changed.

“We’re finally admitting it and bringing it out and saying let’s get this down to the right size of where it needs to be,” Langley said. At his suggestion, the committee bill was introduced, and he asked the proficiency council to continue its work using the bill as a starting point for specific recommendations.

The council is expected to have a final report in Aug. 1.

A date for a public hearing on the bill has not yet been set.

The committee bill contains other changes, including exceptions to allow students with individual education plans – or IEPs – to get a diploma, and to have diplomas include a transcript to show a certificate indicating the student’s areas of proficiency.

New Hampshire is the only state that already has gone completely to proficiency-based diplomas. Colorado and Vermont passed legislation similar to Maine’s and are also in the process of moving to a proficiency-based diploma. Dozens of states offer proficiency-based or competency-based diplomas as an option, but do not require them, according to a review of states’ policies by the California-based Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Maine schools are at varying places in preparing for proficiency-based graduation requirements. Many have received waivers from the Maine Department of Education to delay starting the requirements with the graduating class of 2018, allowing them extra time to prepare.

 

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