NEWPORT — Algebra was not Kylee Elderkin’s favorite subject at the beginning of the school year.

“I was a little behind,” said Kylee, 14. “I wouldn’t understand.”

The Nokomis Regional High School ninth-grader said she used to routinely miss key skills and do poorly on tests. Struggling students like Kylee might not have made it through honors algebra in the past, said teacher Ellen Payne, who has taught high school math for 11 years. Payne said she used to “lose” four or five students a year from honors algebra; they’d have to drop down a level. In lower-level classes, some would have to repeat the whole course.

This year, Payne doesn’t expect to lose Kylee or anyone else.

That’s thanks to a new teaching approach here called “proficiency-based education” that was inspired by a 2012 state law.

The law requires that by 2021, students graduating from Maine high schools must show they have mastered specific skills – rather than simply completing a set number of courses and earning credits – to earn high school diplomas. Maine was the first state to pass such a law, though the idea of valuing skills over credits is increasingly popular around the country. “Maine is the pioneer,” said Chris Sturgis, co-founder of CompetencyWorks, a national organization that advocates for the approach in K-12 schools.

This year’s nearly 13,500 eighth-graders will be the first students required to meet the changed requirements, which are being phased in gradually. By 2021, schools must offer diplomas based on reaching proficiency in the four core academic subject areas: English, math, science and social studies. By 2025, four additional subject areas will be included: a second language, the arts, health and physical education.

Historically, skills in these subject areas, such as being able to perform a science experiment, have been less important than earning a passing grade with on-time homework, satisfactory test scores and accurate lab reports. Time has also been an important component; if a student hasn’t earned that passing grade by June, he or she fails the course. Under the new system, students are meant to be given more time to ensure they’ve mastered the needed skills – which could mean more students will take longer than four years to graduate.

The system is meant to offer students clarity about what they must learn and how they are expected to demonstrate they’ve learned it. Students will have more flexibility to learn at their own pace and teachers more time to provide extra help for students who need it. Ideally, every diploma in Maine would signify that the students had mastered the state’s learning standards.

But it is up to each school district to determine what “proficient” means. The law grants local districts lots of leeway in determining what students must do to prove their proficiency, which means the value of the new diplomas will still be largely determined by where students live. And overhauling the state’s high schools comes with challenges beyond the logistical hurdles. There is already resistance from teachers fed up with top-down reforms, confusion about exactly what the law requires, and missing information about how districts will be judged on their compliance.

Five of the state’s 124 high schools are on target to hand out the new diplomas next spring, according to the Maine Department of Education, while others have barely started to make the transition.

Nokomis English teacher Elizabeth Vigue talks with senior Dylan Bickford recently at the Newport school. “I think (a proficiency-based approach to education) takes courage,” Vigue says. “One thing you need to believe to work here is that every child can learn.” Staff photo by Gregory Rec

TEACHERS UNION GROWS CAUTIOUS

Since the mid-1990s several New England states have looked to proficiency-based education in an attempt to ensure a more equal education for all students. In fact, several Maine districts, including Gray-New Gloucester, were already working toward a proficiency-based model at the time the diploma law was passed.

Starting in 2011, several key groups and people in Maine worked to put the state ahead of the pack in terms of legal requirements for proficiency. Former state education commissioner Stephen Bowen was a cheerleader for the idea during his tenure at the Maine Department of Education from 2011 to 2013.

“Maine has really had a struggle making the transition from a natural resource-based economy to whatever this new economy is,” said Bowen, who now directs innovation initiatives for the Council of Chief State School Officers, a national association for state superintendents. “There was a sense that we needed to swing for the fences to make the economic transition the state needs to make.”

Bowen said that test scores had been flat and educators told him they felt they had squeezed all the success there was to squeeze out of the current system. “It wasn’t for lack of trying,” Bowen said. “It was a systems design problem.”

Initially, there was little pushback, said Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association, the state’s teachers union. “The way it was presented was that it was going to meet the needs of every student, and that sounds like what all of us want,” Kilby-Chesley said.

As the rollout of the new system has proved challenging and confusing for many school districts, though, the union’s position has grown more cautious. Kilby-Chesley now worries that low-performing and special education students could be hurt.

The proficiency-based idea has also created headaches at some schools for teachers trying to monitor students’ individual progress. Many teachers are skeptical of yet another in what seems like a series of endless “reforms” from the state government. Teachers report that some parents worry that switching to a new grading system with numbers instead of letters, which is an option for schools but not a requirement of the law, could affect college admissions. And the consequences for not meeting the terms of the law, including the way districts will be judged, have not yet been published by the Maine Department of Education.

At this point, Kilby-Chesley said that the union would support legislation to repeal the current proficiency-based diploma law.

“We do want all kids to be proficient, obviously,” she said. “But when you say, ‘Here’s the bar, and you’re never going to be able to jump over it,’ why would (students) bother to keep trying?”

Mary Nadeau, principal at Nokomis Regional High, is credited with encouraging her colleagues to embrace change in the transition to proficiency-based learning. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

MORE OPPORTUNITY FOR STRUGGLING STUDENTS

But at schools that have embraced the new system, teachers say they are finding that struggling students are seeing the biggest gains because teachers are given more time to re-teach skills and students better understand the parameters for earning a diploma.

“I think it’s going to raise our graduation rate,” said Nokomis Principal Mary Nadeau. “It’s going to free us from backtracking. We can just cut to the chase and say, ‘Can you do this?’ “

If a student can write a great essay by the end of 10th grade, she pointed out, why should it matter that he or she struggled to write essays for most of freshman year? Once the student can show proficiency in essay writing, his or her grade on that skill in a previous course can cease to be a concern.

“Part of this change has been about equity,” Nadeau said. Deciding to believe that all students are capable of learning all of the standards, she said, “was scary.”

In the classrooms at Nokomis, tests are now broken down into specific sets of skills so teachers can identify how well students understand each task. When students get less than a proficient score, they must go back and study the skill they missed. They are then given a chance to retake the relevant portions of the test until they earn a satisfactory score.

Kylee said that process is why she now loves algebra and is on track with the rest of her class. “I definitely would have struggled if I didn’t have to go through the process of retaking,” Kylee said. “It ties to what we’re doing now, so if I didn’t know it, I wouldn’t be getting the grades I get.”

It has always been true that algebra students need to master variables in order to move on to factoring, for example, but ninth-graders weren’t always so adept at understanding that, Kylee’s teachers said.

A similar realization has motivated students who don’t master all the skills in a given course by the end of the school year, Payne said. In part, that’s because they now get to keep the credit for the skills they have learned.

“While we will still have students having to repeat Algebra I – or any other class – they will at least not have wasted their year,” Payne said. “They will have fewer (skills) that they have to meet the next year, which takes a little pressure off them.”

If one of Payne’s algebra students gets through just half of the skills one year, he will be signed up for the course again the following year. The difference now is that he will be able to start where he left off. He might work independently from the rest of the class, with Payne providing guidance, until he masters all the necessary skills.

The shift in thinking about how students learn best has inspired other changes at Nokomis too. A new algebra class for students who struggle the most with that subject meets daily instead of every other day to provide the needed extra time. English students can prove their understanding of concepts in more than one way, such as illustrating a poem to demonstrate a grasp of figurative language. Multiple-choice questions have virtually disappeared. Homework is checked but not graded.

“We really thought if we didn’t grade it, they wouldn’t do it,” Payne said of the homework she and her colleagues assign. She said that fear proved unfounded.

Teachers and administrators here said they prioritized their students and families over fitting any preconceived idea of what proficiency-based education should look like. For example, they use the 1-to-4 grading scale in class to help students better understand how close they are to hitting their proficiency targets. For report cards, they convert those scores into letter grades to make it simple for parents, colleges and other post-secondary institutions to understand.

QUESTIONS OF PRACTICALITY ABOUND

Despite its popularity with both teachers and students at Nokomis, this potential revolution in Maine’s high school experience is far from a successful finish.

Even critics have been mostly unconcerned about costs beyond what it will take to pay educators for their extra training and planning time during the transition. To cover those costs, districts are receiving one-ninth of 1 percent of their annual state education allocation on top of their regular amount during the years of the phase-in. That could range from a few thousand dollars for smaller districts to more than $10,000 for larger districts, said Erika Stump, a research associate at the Center for Education Policy, Applied Research and Evaluation at the University of Southern Maine.

Erika Stump, at the Center for Education Policy, Applied Research and Evaluation at the University of Southern Maine, has written widely on proficiency-based education. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

Private funding has been plentiful and causes some to worry about outside influence. In New England, the primary private funder has been the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, which has donated to multiple projects seeking to evaluate proficiency-based education and make it a reality in schools. Those projects include Educate Maine, an education nonprofit whose board is dominated by Maine business leaders, and Great Schools Partnership, a Portland-based nonprofit helping New England schools move to proficiency-based systems. (Nellie Mae is also one of the many funders of The Hechinger Report, the nonprofit education news publication that produced this report.)

And the practical questions for schools can seem endless: How do coaches determine athletic eligibility if every student learns different things at different times? When are teachers supposed to find time to let students retake tests? And what about special-education students who may never reach a universal standard for “proficient”?

With districts across Maine answering those questions in different ways, the new law might not result in academic improvement across the board, Stump said. “If your intent is to raise student achievement, a large-scale, vaguely defined proficiency-based diploma law is not going to do that,” she said.

Some schools are making unpopular changes that aren’t required by the law, she said. Other schools are changing the language they use to describe what they are doing without changing their practice. And still other schools have made changes only to have them reversed when leadership or other circumstances change. None of these processes has endeared teachers or students to the new rules.

Moreover, “proficient” means different things to different districts. So while everyone agrees that high school graduates should be able to read, Stump said, that’s not a sufficient answer to what constitutes proficient reading.

“How much should you be able to read?” Stump asked. “Should you be able to read Shakespeare or should you be literate?”

Some teachers worry that requiring all students to be proficient at everything is both unrealistic and unfair. Not every academic skill is essential to every person, argued Linda Morehouse, a longtime English teacher at Gray-New Gloucester High School. “They can still be contributing members of society even if they’re not that great at grammar,” Morehouse said. “That shouldn’t hold them back from a ticket to a successful career, which is our diploma.”

Ideally, the additional time and support students are supposed to receive would address concerns like Morehouse’s, said Diana Doiron of the Maine Department of Education, who visits schools across the state to help put the new system in place.

“We inherited a structure for schooling that was based on time and on philosophical beliefs that learning would be distributed across a bell curve,” Doiron said. To dispense with that structure and allow all students the time they need to complete their work, she said, “is really getting at the heart of what education is supposed to be.”

Such a shift would move schools away from what educators sometimes refer to as the “industrial model” of education that held sway in the 19th and 20th centuries to a model geared toward the more flexible work environments of the 21st century, proponents argue.

It’s also potentially more motivating to students, said David Ruff, a former Maine teacher and the executive director of Great Schools Partnership. It’s the difference, he said, between telling a kid, “‘You’ve got to spend the morning with me raking leaves,’ or ‘You’ve got to rake the backyard and when it’s done you can run,’ ” he said. In the second case, “the backyard gets done pretty quick.”

GRASPING WHAT STUDENTS NEED TO KNOW

At Nokomis, where roughly half of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a few students dressed in Colonial garb hurried back to class for a presentation on the Revolutionary War. Camouflage flannel shirts and hoodies were the fashion statement of choice for most of the rest of the 613 students in this rural high school.

Spurred both by the new law and by concerns that academics at Nokomis lacked “cohesion,” Principal Nadeau tapped her subject-area department heads to “get crystal clear about what we want students to know and be able to do and then how to measure it.”

Some teachers were initially resistant, Nadeau said, but all of the academic departments met both on their own and with administrators to develop their lists of what students in their subject area needed to know. Teachers also received additional transition help from Ruff’s Great Schools Partnership thanks to a federal grant Nadeau won for the school. Now, most say they approve of the changes.

Nokomis High School’s graduation rate is on par with the state average, but it’s located in an economically depressed, rural area of the state with lower teacher salaries, so proponents see their success as a particularly encouraging sign.

“If Nokomis can do it, anybody can do it,” said Ruff, of Great Schools Partnership.

Nokomis does boast the advantage of having a strong and trusted leader in Nadeau, a factor Stump called critical to successfully encouraging teachers to question their current practice and embrace massive changes.

English department head Elizabeth Vigue was quick to point to the biggest change her team had to make: giving up nearly every novel on their syllabus.

“Having to acknowledge you didn’t know what skills that novel was good for was painful,” Vigue said. But she’s decided that giving up classics like Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations” has been worth it to watch her students better grasp concepts she knows will allow them to tackle any novel they want in the future.

“I think this takes courage,” Vigue said of making such big changes. “One thing you need to believe to work here is that every child can learn.”