Class of 2018 graduates stand during Commencement ceremonies at Kennebunk High School in June. A new law gives school administrative units the option of either awarding credit-based or proficiency based diplomas. ED PIERCE/Journal Tribune

BIDDEFORD — A new law signed by Maine Gov. Paul LePage in July will leave it up to individual school administrative units, or SAUs, to determine if high schools will award proficiency-based or credit-based diplomas to graduates effective Dec. 13.

The education-reform measure was passed this spring by the 128th Legislature and removed a mandate that a high school diploma be based on a student’s demonstration of proficiency in Maine’s Learning Results. Instead, the new law makes a proficiency-based diploma one of two options that includes the traditional credit-based system.

Legislators intended for the new law to offer opportunities for flexibility and innovation in awarding a high school diploma, but veteran educators say that the new law is not without challenges.

A statement posted by the Maine Department of Education on its website mentions specific concerns about issues some SAUs may face going forward.

“As school leaders consider the uncertainties presented by the new law, Commissioner (Robert Hasson) wants districts to know that Maine DOE has an unwavering commitment to the quality of education for all Maine students,” the release said. “In this vein, districts should move forward with diploma requirements that serve students with an understanding that further legislation is likely necessary to reduce the inconsistencies between the two options.”

Information in the release said that the commissioner is working collaboratively with stakeholders to establish common goals and seek solutions that ensure Maine’s high school diploma requirements provide a challenging, high quality education for every student in Maine and that the Maine DOE looks forward to working with districts in this endeavor to prepare graduates for a bright future.

Under the old law passed in 2012, a diploma indicating graduation from a secondary school was based on student demonstration of proficiency. SAUs were tasked with to maintaining a high school transcript for each student, and certify each student’s content area proficiency in order to award a certificate of content area proficiency to a student for each content area in the system of learning results.

The old law specified that certification of content area proficiency must be included with the student’s permanent academic transcript, and a student may use certification of content area proficiency as an official credential of academic achievement for the purposes of employment and postsecondary education.

When a school administrative unit certifies content area proficiency, reported certifications of content area proficiency to the Maine Department of Education, the DOE then collects and aggregates the data as evidence of progress toward high school graduation goals.

A proficiency-based diploma is a graduation decision made buy SAUs based upon students demonstrating what they have learned.

That means that every student must currently show, through either writing a paper, delivering a presentation, or completing a challenging project, that they have grasped and attained a minimum level of proficiency and competence when it comes to mastering the essential knowledge and skills they need to succeed in college, work, and life.

Dating back to the 19th century, most high school students in America have earned credits for passing courses and when they have racked up enough credits, they graduate with a diploma.

But many times the process of acquiring credits does not always amount to competency in subject areas. Each year some high school students may graduate knowing calculus, while others struggle with basic algebra and simple arithmetic. Some graduate with strong writing and research skills, yet others can barely read and write.

The credit-based diploma promotes students from one grade to the next entirely on credits for classes taken, their age and the amount of time they have spent in school.

Legislators argue that under proficiency-based requirements, students can be promoted from one learning level to the next based solely on their ability to demonstrate proficiency in meeting state-required learning standards.

The 2012 law required that students demonstrate proficiency in eight content areas including English, math, science and technology, social studies, health and physical education, visual and performing arts, world languages, and career and education development. Rather than grades A through F, many schools began using the proficiency based graduation system and switched to a 1 through 4 grading system.

The newly enacted law represents a significant rollback of graduation standards now giving SAUs an option to remain with the credit-based system of awarding diplomas or adopting the more stringent proficiency based requirements.

“No longer can administrations force teachers and parents into compliance with policies that were never law,” Rep. Heidi Sampson, R-Alfred, who serves on the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, said in a statement. “Nonprofit organizations that have been pushing proficiency-based diplomas for the past six years no longer have the law to use as leverage to force their agenda on Maine schools.”

Other legislators touted the new law’s flexibility.

“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.

— Executive Editor Ed Pierce can be reached at 282-1535 or by email at [email protected]

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