State education officials are grappling with what to do about proficiency-based diplomas, and Monday the public will get to chime in.

Debate over a bill introduced earlier this session to delay the diplomas a year morphed unexpectedly into a wide-ranging discussion that included getting rid of the requirement entirely.

Now officials have introduced two new late-session bills – both with public hearings Monday – expanding the range of options before them. In addition to the original bill to delay but keep the diplomas, there is a middle-ground bill proposed by the Department of Education to repeal the diplomas but replace them with certain state-mandated requirements to get a diploma, as well as a committee bill to repeal the proficiency-based diplomas and leave it up to local district officials to set diploma standards.

Members of the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee said they had no official position on the diplomas yet, but introduced the bill to allow for a public hearing.

Maine’s proficiency-based diploma law, passed in 2012, was one of the first in the nation after Rhode Island. Similar policies are now in place in New Hampshire and Vermont.

Since then, school districts across the state have changed grading systems, altered the look of diplomas, changed class schedules and poured time and money into meeting the requirement and explaining it all to parents and students. Some schools have already started issuing the diplomas to graduates, while others have struggled. Teachers have questioned if this is the latest in a series of short-lived reform efforts, and parents and students have pushed back against new grading systems they fear could be confusing for college admissions or financial aid officers. A 2-month-old private Facebook page called “Mainers Concerned about Proficiency Based Learning” has more than 1,300 members.

This year’s 13,500 freshmen are supposed to be the first class required to meet proficiency standards. To earn a diploma, they must show they’ve mastered specific skills – rather than simply completing a set number of courses and earning credits – in eight content areas: English, math, science and technology, social studies, health and physical education, visual and performing arts, world languages, and career and education development.

There have been concerns that the tougher standards could reduce graduation rates, and whether schools are 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 number 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 remedial courses, according to state data.

Another sticking point is that the state sets the standards but leaves it to local districts to define “proficiency” in those standards. That means students in neighboring districts might have very different requirements to get a diploma.

The Department of Education bill, L.D. 1989, tackles that aspect head-on and in a surprising way for a local-control state.

Under that bill, the state for the first time spells out the minimum graduation requirements: Students must meet the English standards for 11th and 12th grades, and the math standards “at the high school level span,” in order to get a diploma. It does not require “seat time” or certain classes, because it allows credit for alternative equivalents, such as a student having an internship that would satisfy the math or English requirement.

It also requires students to have “educational experiences” – again, not necessarily classes – in English, math, science and technology in each year of high school.

“It’s worded very carefully. … It is a clearer bar than has been in statute before,” said the department’s Mary Paine, director of strategic initiatives. At the same time, it “creates more flexibility” for local districts since it leaves it up to teachers to determine whether a student has met a standard.

“We trust teachers to know” whether a student is proficient in a standard, she said. “(It) requires teacher-level judgment.”

If the committee bill passes – repealing the diploma law but offering no alternative – it could return school districts to past practices of requiring “two years of this, four years of that” or a specific number of courses, Paine said. That can “get in the way” of students pursuing a nontraditional educational path.

In committee discussions, several members emphasized that they only wanted to remove the state mandate for the diplomas, not order districts to drop proficiency-based diplomas.

“If they have worked this out and found they have a diploma that works that is a proficiency-based diploma, they can continue it. We’re not trying to tell the local schools what their diploma will look like,” said Rep. Victoria Kornfield, D-Bangor.

“I will say that everyone working on this has great intentions,” Paine said. “What looks like dueling bills is really a way to keep the conversation going.”

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

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Twitter: noelinmaine

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