Yarmouth science teacher Catie Wooten reviews a plan for a mock news conference as part of proficiency-based learning. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the last of three stories about Maine’s move toward proficiency-based education. The series was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, in partnership with the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram.

YARMOUTH — Abi Thornton, Olivia Feeley and Jack Romano were considering every angle as they worked through a diagnosis of their patient, Mr. Krabs. The 65-year-old Krabs presented with chest pain and excessive sweating. Those symptoms, combined with his weight and high blood pressure, put him at risk of heart disease.

“We reviewed the patient chart,” Abi said. “He is likely to get (sick).”

The other 16-year-old would-be doctors nodded, then busied themselves with a poster outlining Krabs’ condition. Olivia labeled a detailed drawing of Krabs’ diseased heart, while Abi added a patient summary in perfect print. Jack carefully wrote the names of all three students in the top corner.

“Some of them are healthy,” Olivia said, pointing out that other “patients” being diagnosed by her 10th-grade biology classmates were in better shape than poor Krabs. She liked the poster project. “It’s good to learn difficult skills. It’s tricky,” she said.

The heart disease project lets students dig in deep and check with one another to make sure they understand all the factors that contribute to heart disease – including patient weight, heart function and blood flow – before they move on. Yarmouth High’s science department decided to add more such projects to the curriculum as part of its new focus on going beyond earning credits to ensuring that students master key skills in each course, science teacher Catie Wooten said.

“My sense is that students are getting a better understanding of how science is done,” Wooten said. “And it has helped me with understanding where students are at.”

Yarmouth’s recent changes to its curriculum and teaching methods, known as proficiency-based education, were inspired by the 2012 state law that will require all students to graduate with a proficiency-based diploma, beginning with the class of 2021.

Yarmouth teacher Deborah Johansen asks questions in an English class. She says some veteran teachers were hesitant about the switch to proficiency-based learning, but she is satisfied with the district’s response to the new state law. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

The law requires that every district determine standards for proficiency in eight subject areas and then base the awarding of diplomas on student mastery of those subjects. But the exact details of what the state will count as proficiency are unclear, as are the consequences for not hitting that undefined target. The result is that districts are charting their own courses. And Yarmouth’s chosen path, a gradual shift rather than a 180-degree turn, could be the most likely way forward for most of the state.

“We’ve taken a slow and steady approach,” said Yarmouth Principal Eric Klein. “We’re not having to drastically change.”

POSSIBLE MODEL FOR OTHER STATES

Yarmouth’s use of traditional teaching methods to answer the primary requirements of Maine’s new law could also prove to be a model for schools nationally, as more states consider moving to a proficiency-based or competency-based system. Maine and Vermont are the only states that have passed laws requiring schools to make these changes, but the idea is gaining traction elsewhere.

“There is increasing interest among states to learn more about competency-based education and how to effectively support districts,” said Chris Sturgis, co-founder of CompetencyWorks, a national organization focused on spreading information about competency-based education to K-12 schools. “Some may create learning communities, some may pilot, and some will seek out high-leverage policies such as proficiency-based diplomas.”

Maine took the high-leverage policy route, which has upset some educators here, even those who essentially agree with the ideals of teaching content based on what students already know, providing extra time to struggling students and working to ensure all kids reach mastery – whatever that may mean in a given subject area. In fact, the idea originally came from educators decades ago. But that doesn’t alter the fact that the current changes in Maine are happening because of a state law voted in by legislators, not teachers.

Jack Romano looks over his action plan for a mock press conference he is organizing with a group of students in a science class at Yarmouth High School. The mock press conference was in response to a disease outbreak that students had researched. The research and the action plan are part of the school’s proficiency-based learning. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

Still, Johansen is satisfied with her district’s response to this new law. She thinks teachers here were treated as professionals and given autonomy to devise a solution that both met the letter of the law and worked for students.

“Again in Yarmouth, we were able to focus on what we’ve always done to ensure our kids are getting a good education,” Johansen said.

The requirement that Yarmouth’s teachers and administrators settled on is that each student must earn a score of 80 percent or higher on each of three to five “cornerstones” – tests or projects that students use to demonstrate their skills in different subject areas. If students don’t earn an 80 on their cornerstones the first time, they have a chance to study more and retake the test or do the project again. Students also have to earn a passing grade for the course, based on the rest of their work.

Designing the new course outlines and the cornerstones that would anchor them took a lot of work, said Wooten, the science teacher. Using the Next Generation Science Standards, a national framework for teaching science that focuses more on the scientific process than on memorizing content, as a guide, she and her colleagues spent hours identifying the key skills and standards they wanted students to master in each subject area. (Yarmouth gives teachers time for meetings with their subject-area teams at least every other week.) They then worked together to create cornerstone projects, both exams and labs, for each science course to ensure that all students meet the same expectations, no matter which teacher they have.

STUDENTS FAVOR SECOND CHANCES

Yarmouth is a wealthy town with driven students. For many here, success in school is paramount. But multiple students interviewed said there was no shame in not passing a cornerstone. In fact, they felt it was only fair to be given the chance to re-do work they didn’t master on the first try.

“If you misunderstand one thing, you keep misunderstanding,” Jack, one of Mr. Krabs’ would-be doctors, pointed out. Earlier this year, he didn’t pass a biology cornerstone that required him to write an analysis of enzymes. He had to go back and study the topic more and retake the test.

Yarmouth High science teacher Catie Wooten laughs as students present a mock press conference on May 31. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

He isn’t grumbling about the extra work, though. “It definitely solidifies anything you’re not sure of,” Jack said. “I used what I already knew and added the rest.”

Some proficiency-based education proponents would say this kind of solution is in keeping with the spirit of proficiency-based education. It provides more latitude to students who need extra time to master a skill, although it isn’t truly self-paced. Students still must show up to class on a typical high school schedule. And while not every cornerstone is a test, students aren’t offered a menu of ways to prove their mastery – they must complete the cornerstone they’ve been assigned, be it an essay, an exam, or something more interactive.

“To try to do competency-based education without the personalization doesn’t make a lot of sense,” said Sturgis of CompetencyWorks. “How are you going to help each kid be successful unless you actually meet them where they are?”

But others, especially educators in Maine, think a measured approach is a good idea. Overhauling high school is no small task, said Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association, the state’s teachers union.

“I anticipate that it might be difficult in the first few years, and I don’t mean to say it’s not going to work,” Kilby-Chesley said. “This is going to be an experiment, and I think in the first few years there has to be some flexibility in it so we can help those kids reach their diploma.”