Maine Enacts Competency-based High School Diplomas

Published June 6, 2012

Maine has passed a new law that will base high school graduation on student proficiency rather than seat time.

“Some high schools are looking at a sequence of seat time and too many of them don’t have a rigorous expectation for a diploma,” Maine Superintendent Don Siviski said. “The difference now is that we have the technology to make it happen.”

Maine has no exit or subject exams for graduating seniors. If students earn passing grades each year, they move to the next grade level and eventually graduate.

Under a proficiency-based model, students must demonstrate mastery of every subject or skill before graduating. This means students advance at their own pace, taking more time if they need or advancing more quickly in subjects where they excel. A student may graduate at 16 or 21.

“I always thought it was kind of a cruel hoax to give a student a diploma, and a pat on the back as they walked off the stage, when they haven’t mastered reading, writing or arithmetic,” explained Sen. Brian Langley (R-Ellsworth), sponsor of Legislative Document 1422, now Public Law 669.

Seeking Tougher Requirements
Maine lags behind the country on Scholastic Aptitude Test scores, which measure eleventh graders’ progress. Education officials want all students to have greater access to advanced and college-level courses. Gov. Paul LePage (R) set up a task force to increase students’ opportunities to complete college early.

Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen explained this was a leading motivation behind the legislation. “The idea is that under the bill,” Bowen said, “this year’s seventh-graders would be that first class of kids that would have to demonstrate that they’ve met the learning results in order to graduate.”

Beginning with the class of 2015, the new law requires graduates to demonstrate proficiency in English, mathematics, science, social studies, and physical education. 2018 graduates must master additional core subjects, including career and education development, world languages, and visual and performing arts.

Free Field or Dead End?
More than two dozen Maine school districts have already switched to a performance-based graduation system or are beginning to. The new law requires them to assess proficiency as students advance at different paces, and the education department will monitor schools’ progress.

“This preoccupation on performance takes the place of viable learning,” said Lance Dutson, CEO of The Maine Heritage Policy Center. “[Children need] the reward of overcoming challenges–earning an A, versus accomplishing just another ‘learning goal.'”

Performance-based schools are rare. A 2010 study comparing seven school districts using the model to similar other schools found that students in the proficiency-based schools were 37 percent more likely to test “proficient” or above on state reading tests and 55 percent more likely to score the same in mathematics.

“From a fiscal standpoint, establishment of the school resource website, among other mandates, will of course cost taxpayers more money,” Dutson said.

All schools must have new diploma standards in place by 2017, although there is a waiver provision until 2020.

Image by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.