Education

Proficiency-based education is failing Maine students

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Maine’s experimental education model, proficiency-based learning, has received strong pushback in recent weeks from various communities around the state as the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee considers another year-long delay of the 2012 law.  Students and parents in Scarborough and Lewiston have protested the implementation of proficiency-based policies that they claim are hurting Maine’s future. 

In Scarborough, high school principal David Creech abruptly resigned after allegedly being forced out of his job over disagreements with district administration about proficiency-based learning and new school start times. According to the Bangor Daily News, Creech’s lawyer claims Scarborough’s Superintendent, Julie Kukenberger, told Creech that he wasn’t a “good fit” for the district and needed to resign, or he wouldn’t be recommended for contract renewal.

In Lewiston, 259 high school students signed a petition opposing new systems of instruction, assessment, grading and academic reporting under proficiency-based education.

During a protest in Scarborough last Monday, students were seen holding signs that read “I’m worth more than 4 points,” a clever reference to the 1-4 grading scale that has been implemented under the proficiency-based model. Rather than the traditional 1-100 scale, students in Maine public schools are now graded 1-4 based on their mastery of certain content areas. The model has been criticized by students and parents for being incomprehensible and for putting seniors at a disadvantage when it comes to applying to competitive post-secondary institutions.

As schools continue experimenting with proficiency-based education, the model is proving to be unmanageable for Maine families. Not only has grading become difficult for parents and students to understand, assessing grades has become an extraordinarily difficult task for teachers.

The root cause of this is that the proficiency model gives no concrete definition of what proficiency is; and is therefore incredibly difficult for teachers to assess. While the model gives freedom to individual school units to define proficiency on their own, this radical level of autonomy in assessment makes proficiency itself nearly impossible to conceptualize or achieve statewide. Proficiency may be easier to achieve in one school compared to another based on self-adopted standards, meaning the proficiency model itself does little to ensure all Maine graduates are “proficient” learners.

Without adequate guidance or direction from the State, districts have also struggled to apply proficiency standards for students with disabilities and other individualized needs. In addition, new graduation requirements leave many Mainers scratching their heads. Some schools have imposed application to a post-secondary school as a graduation requirement. It is not the job of public schools to require post-secondary education, nor is post-secondary education required to be successful; it is not the right path for some students.

Another troubling aspect of proficiency-based learning is that it draws lines in the sand between success, achievement, and failure. For example, a student could achieve mastery level in all content areas except visual and performing arts, where the student failed to attain foundational  knowledge. Under the traditional system, this student could still graduate with a B average even if they performed poorly in this one subject area. Under the proficiency system, this student would not even receive a diploma because s/he failed to gain foundational knowledge in a content area that likely has little to do with his/her career aspirations or future success as a learner or professional.

With no understanding of what achieving proficiency looks like, students will lose the drive to outperform their peers. Under the traditional system, high achievers were rewarded with higher scores. Under the proficiency model, one student may be more gifted than another, and have grasped more material, but both students would be awarded a 3 or 3.5 if they did not achieve a mastery level of the content.

The complexity of this gray area makes it incredibly taxing for schools to determine valedictorians and honor-level students. It’s even more difficult to translate this grading scale to a consumable medium for post-secondary school application. All major colleges and universities still use the traditional 1-100, letter grading scale, as do most states. For a Maine student who wishes to attend college outside of Maine at an institution that has no relationship with the Maine high school, the student’s chance of acceptance will likely be affected if the institution must go through lengthy research to determine how Maine’s education model stacks up with the rest of the nation, or how the Maine student’s scores compare to other students whose transcripts reflect the traditional grading scale. 

Mackenzie Richard, a student representative serving on Lewiston High School’s proficiency-based learning implementation committee, told the Sun Journal, “We’ve reached out to colleges and they’ve said this will affect the admissions process.”

According to the Maine Education Policy Research Institute, implementing proficiency-based diplomas is “proving very complex and difficult within existing structures of traditional public school teacher certifications, student achievement reporting, school grade configurations, daily scheduling, existing learning management technology, limited external or community supplemental resources, and current levels of personnel capacity.”

Rather than delay this law another year, it’s time for Maine to scrap this experiment for a more traditional model that is workable for Maine families and rewards high-achievers.

About Jacob Posik

Jacob Posik, of Turner, is a policy analyst for the Maine Heritage Policy Center. He can be reached at jposik@mainepolicy.org.

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