A Post-Mortem on Maine’s Proficiency-Based Graduation Requirement
Lessons Learned and Recommendations for Next Steps
The Maine legislature passed a proficiency-based (also known elsewhere as competency-based or mastery-based) graduation requirement in 2012, which was recently repealed before it was implemented.
The repeal prompts us to ask several questions: What went wrong with Maine’s proficiency-based diploma initiative that prompted its repeal? What lessons can be learned to help other states implementing similar policies or pursuing similar initiatives? What can help mitigate some of the concerns that led to the repeal?
Assessing One Cause of Death of Maine’s Proficiency-Based Diploma Initiative
The purpose of this post is to conduct a quick post-mortem on Maine’s proficiency-based graduation requirement and suggest a path for going forward. A primary purpose of a post-mortem is to determine the cause of death. My argument is that one cause of Maine’s proficiency-based legislative rollback was that policymakers and practitioners did not attend to the critical importance of developing a common definition of student proficiency within and across school districts. Let me explain.
Requiring Maine school districts to implement proficiency-based diploma requirements and standards-based education systems was part of a larger and long-standing education reform initiative. Advocates argued that students were graduating from high school in Maine without being fully prepared to succeed in college or careers. Their general concern was that students were graduating with varying levels of proficiency across districts and a belief that districts could do more to prepare all students for postsecondary success. These concerns led to “An Act to Prepare Maine People for the Future Economy” (S.P. 439 – L.D. 1422), which passed in 2012. Beginning with the class of 2015, this legislation required, among other policies, that Maine students demonstrate proficiency in five specific content areas to graduate from high school.
The problem was that when Maine passed the legislation that required students to graduate upon demonstration of proficiency on the state standards, the law did not define proficiency or provide guidance to school districts on how to evaluate and determine student proficiency. Further, the legislation did not require school districts to demonstrate comparable expectations about student proficiency, rigor, or alignment to the state content standards.
In practice, this lack of direction meant there was significant variability among school districts in the “specificity, complexity, and interpretation of proficiency-based graduation requirements”. This disparity resulted in local minimum graduation requirements ranging from middle school level knowledge and skills to the twelfth grade level, as well as everything in between.
Concerns rightly arose about how this variability would affect graduation rates in districts with more rigorous proficiency-based high school graduation requirements in comparison to districts with less rigorous understandings of proficiency. It is easy to imagine how unfair and problematic it would be for the same student in Maine to be denied a diploma in one district, but granted a diploma in another (or vice versa). Instead of promoting Maine’s future economy (which was the name of the original legislation), the proficiency-based graduation requirement may in fact deny some students a significant rite of passage and gateway certification needed to enter the workforce.
Important Takeaways From Maine’s Attempt at Legislating a Proficiency-Based Graduation Requirement
One lesson that can be learned from Maine is that attention to a common definition of proficiency is critical for any minimum graduation requirement in order to support the validity, reliability, comparability, generalizability, and fairness of system results. Although this action may sound simple, a common understanding and interpretation of proficiency, competency, or mastery is anything but simple.
Comparability requires calibration within schools and across schools in terms of what is expected of students with regards to the state content standards, at what depth of understanding and complexity, and what counts as acceptable evidence of student proficiency. Clear directives, exemplars, rubrics, training, and annotated anchor papers provided by the state department of education or shared among collaborating districts become highly necessary. Local school districts also are required to collaborate with one another to ensure all students are provided a fair and comparable opportunity to earn a high school diploma–regardless of where in the state they happen to live.
Assessing a Second Cause of Death of Maine’s Proficiency-Based Graduation Requirement
Passing legislation alone does not solve the underlying problem of lackluster student achievement, but it does shine a brighter light on the fact that some students are graduating without meeting the requirements; that is, without adequate preparation for college and careers —which is the problem that led to the legislative initiative in the first place.
Many students still need remedial college courses, and a high percentage of students who enroll in college do not finish a 2-year or 4-year degree program.
Perhaps one of the most important lessons that can be learned from Maine’s attempt to implement statewide proficiency-based graduation requirements is to be careful what you wish for.
States, districts, schools, parents, students, and communities need to be prepared to deal with the ramifications of that spotlight and have an adequate and appropriate strategic plan in place to address student achievement gaps and lackluster achievement.