The proficiency-based learning law was passed in 2012 because too many Maine students were graduating from high school without mastering the necessary skills, and because the gap between the state’s highest- and lowest-performing schools was far too wide.

Now that the Legislature has taken the legs out from under the landmark legislation, those problems remain, as does the central question: What are we going to do to make sure each and every Maine student gets the education they need?

This year’s freshman class would have been the first to be held to proficiency-based standards, which require students to demonstrate certain skills in key subjects in order to graduate, rather than solely pass classes and accumulate credits.

Instead, through a bill passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Paul LePage last week, school districts will be given the choice to continue the work started in the past four years, or return to the traditional system for awarding diplomas.

The districts that were early adopters of proficiency-based learning and have seen success with it will continue on with the new system. Others – the majority – won’t. For better or worse, Maine will be left with K-12 education that looks largely the same as it did when the original law passed, with the same problems.

How does that look? In 2014, just 48 percent of all 11th-graders – and only 32 percent of economically disadvantaged students – were proficient in reading, according to a 2016 report from Educate Maine. In math, the numbers were almost identical.

And while Maine’s high school graduation rate, at 88 percent, is high, many of those students need remedial coursework once they move on to the next level – 12 percent of those entering the University of Maine System and 50 percent of those who enroll in one of the state’s community colleges.

The extra classes cost students a combined $2 million a year, and those that take them are far less likely to finish school than those who don’t have to; the additional cost and time are discouraging for students.

To be sure, schools are fighting against a powerful foe – poverty. Student achievement has as much to do with what happens at home than what goes in the classroom; it’s why standardized test results so closely align with poverty rates.

But that doesn’t mean inequality cannot be overcome. It just means it’ll take efforts both inside and outside of the classroom to counteract it. Access to affordable housing, health care and nutrition truly does matter as much as talented teachers and administrators.

The bottom line is that the strength of a student’s education should not depend on where they go to school. Each and every Maine child deserves the best that we can give them.

Did the Legislature miss an opportunity to provide that education? Time will tell. All we know now is that the problems that led to the 2012 law remain, and Maine is right back to where it began.

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