New graduation standards requiring Maine high school graduates to be proficient in eight content areas are too tough and should be phased in over several years, a legislative committee said Wednesday.

Under a state law passed in 2012, students will get diplomas only if they 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, starting with the class of 2018.

The Legislature’s Education Committee voted unanimously Wednesday to endorse a bill scaling back the requirement.

The measure would require the graduating class of 2021 to be proficient in only four “core” areas: math, science, English and social studies. For each of the next four graduating classes, an additional content area, chosen by individual students, would be added to the graduation requirement until 2025, when graduates would have to be proficient in all eight content areas.

“I’ve had teachers say we can do four (content areas) but said they can’t do eight,” said Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, the committee’s Senate chairman, as the panel debated the bill. “They said that’s what keeps them up at night, that maybe 50 percent of their students wouldn’t be proficient in some content areas” and wouldn’t graduate.

He also said some schools might have to drop advanced-level courses because teachers would be spread too thin trying to teach larger numbers of students basic subject matter. Phasing in the requirements would give schools time to adjust staffing and organize scheduling to meet the requirements, he said.

Several lawmakers emphasized that the bill, L.D. 1627, wouldn’t change the Maine Learning Standards, which require schools to provide courses in all eight content areas. It affects only the proficiency requirements for graduation.

Some committee members said they worried that reducing the initial requirements to a “core four” would send a signal that the other areas aren’t as valuable, leaving them vulnerable to being cut from school curriculums.

There’s also concern about providing schools the funding to meet the new requirements, said Rep. Victoria Kornfield, the committee’s House chairwoman.

“We’re asking schools to do all kinds of new things and we’re not properly funding them,” Kornfield said Wednesday, noting that the committee had cut a section of the bill that would have increased state funding to schools for fear it could sink the entire measure.

“We are holding schools’ feet to the fire on proficiency-based diplomas, yet we’re not holding the state’s feet to the fire to fund education. That’s a rub,” Kornfield said before casting her vote.

MANY GRADUATES NEED REMEDIAL CLASSES

More than a decade after voters agreed that the state should fund 55 percent of the cost of K-12 public education, the state contributes only about 47 percent.

There have been steady, vocal concerns since the proficiency-based diploma bill passed that the tougher standards could reduce graduation rates, even if overall student proficiency went up. Others noted that schools aren’t staffed or funded adequately to provide instruction to all students in all eight areas, particularly foreign languages.

Backers say the tougher diploma requirements are needed because the gap between the percentage of students who graduate and those who are proficient in math and reading is around 37 percentage points. One-third of graduates who go on to college in Maine must take basic remedial courses, according to Department of Education data.

Sen. Langley has said the requirements are “really practically impossible” and there is “almost universal recognition” that 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 as the committee began debating the bill’s language.

‘MULTIPLE PATHWAYS’ TO SHOW PROFICIENCY

In addition to phasing in the proficiency requirements, the bill calls for “multiple pathways” for demonstrating proficiency, such as projects, portfolios or out-of-school experiences.

It also includes exceptions, such as allowing special education students to graduate if they meet requirements spelled out in their individualized education plans, or allowing career and technical education students to graduate if they are successful in their programs.

It also would require schools to provide all students with transcripts that spell out their achievements in all content areas.

Maine education officials said that only a handful of high schools are on track to begin issuing diplomas based on proficiency in all eight content areas by 2018: Regional School Unit 50 in Winthrop, RSU 2 in Greenville, SAD 46 in Dexter, RSU 82 in Kittery and the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences in Fairfield.

Those intending to meet that goal by 2019 are: Yarmouth, Madawaska, Bangor, Westbrook, Falmouth, RSUs 24, 57, 16, 21, 19, 3 and 13, and Harpswell Coastal Academy.

Most districts have been granted waivers by state education officials to delay enforcing the requirements.