The Year of the Proficiency: Lessons from Maine

Editor’s Note: This article is based in research, but takes the view of an editorial on U-32’s proficiency-based grading system.

Vermont is not alone in its struggles with proficiency-based learning. In 2012, one year before Vermont signed Act 77 into law, Maine set forth its own proficiency system in high schools with the goal of full implementation in 2020. New Hampshire and Oregon are among other states that have implemented such systems. As Maine schools pushed closer to that deadline, they encountered problems. 

The debate played out in the Augusta, Maine Sun Journal:

“I think we’re on the wrong path,” said a Maine Physical Education teacher, Jack Kaplan, in 2017. “Everyone attached to proficiency-based learning is stressed by this.”

“We all got into this because we wanted to help kids do better,” said Ed Cervone, director of Educate Maine, to Maine Public Radio. “And we don’t see how this decision actually helps kids do better.”

The deadline for Maine’s proposed “Proficiency Diplomas” was pushed back, year by year. In early 2018, a new deadline was set for the 2025-26 school year.

Finally, on July 20th, 2018, Maine’s Governor, Paul LePage, signed LD 1900, a bill repealing the mandate for schools to issue “Proficiency Diplomas.”

To be clear, Maine did not fully repeal proficiencies- it is now a choice that each district makes. It is too early to tell which schools will keep the system.

Under the repealed law, students had to demonstrate proficiency in eight subject areas, each with its own set of standards. Sound familiar?

Here in Vermont, the class of 2020 will graduate next year with proficiency transcripts.  At U-32 this means demonstrating proficiency all 41 current standards. However, there is still much up for debate about how students are assessed, how many times they need to demonstrate their understanding before being deemed “proficient”, and even the basic definition of what proficiency means.

These problems are the same ones Maine schools attempted to resolve for six years.

The autonomy that the Maine legislature gave to schools is what many wish Vermont had. Instead, Vermont schools were forced to adopt a system for which there were no guidelines. Washington Central Supervisory Union schools have wrestled with this problem since 2013 and have made limited progress to address students’ main concerns.

What can Vermont learn from Maine?

Concrete decisions on problems regarding graduation standards must be resolved as soon as possible. Instead of dealing with the problem head-on, Maine kept pushing those questions back, until the realization that the system was failing.

It remains to be seen if Vermont is destined to follow in Maine’s footsteps.