RSU 3 proposes to keep credit-based diplomas

District grapples with proficiency-based diploma policy while state sets new rules
By Jordan Bailey | Aug 02, 2017
Photo by: Jordan Bailey Valedictorian Cameron Morin speaks at the Mount View High School 2017 graduation.

As Maine officially begins its transition to proficiency-based diplomas with this year’s incoming freshmen, Regional School Unit 3 is proposing to restore the traditional credit-based system as one of several ways students can gain and show proficiency. The Board of Directors also proposes to remove policy language about the "individual pace" at which students may progress through the education system.

Maine has been moving to a graduation system in which diplomas are awarded for proven mastery of all the Maine Learning Results, rather than for an accumulation of credits given for time spent in the classroom and attaining passing grades

The Department of Education's website encourages school districts to move from the “factory-era, assembly line model of schooling,” where students are "locked in an age-based cohort that progresses through a fixed curriculum at a fixed pace,” to a learner-centered model where students have more choice in how, when and where they learn and demonstrate their skills. It urges the legislature to pass laws that truly move the state away from age-based grade levels and carnegie units, the standard of student progress based on the amount of time a student has contact with an instructor.

However, the transition "from credit-based to proficiency-based graduation,” as called for in a 2011 statute, has become in implementation an expansion of options rather than a replacement of the current system. The department recently proposed a new rule (Rule Chapter 134) for proficiency-based diplomas that allows for “a particular course or sequence of courses” as one of the “multiple pathways to proficiency” a school must provide.

DOE Proficiency-Based Education Specialist Diana Doiron confirmed that this means the traditional, credit-based system may be used to satisfy the requirements of a proficiency-based diploma, and DOE Communications Director Rachel Paling said "There is nothing in the proficiency diploma law to prevent a district from including carnegie credits as a component in their determinations for certifying proficiency for a diploma."

RSU 3 initially responded to the impending change by updating its graduation policy in 2014 to eliminate credit requirements for graduation for the Class of 2021 and beyond. Instead, students were to demonstrate proficiency in Maine Learning Results through "multiple measures," and they could gain proficiency through coursework or “other learning experiences.”

While that policy lists assessments, portfolios, performances, exhibitions, projects or community services as examples of measures of proficiency, it gives no examples of "other learning experiences."

“There was a lot of confusion among our students and teachers who were very concerned about what they were seeing and they were not sure what they needed to do and why they needed to do it,” Superintendent Paul Austin said at a July 17 meeting of the school board.

Further, he said, because students were unsure whether, and how, career and technical education courses at Waldo County Technical Center would count toward the new graduation requirements, the high school was seeing a drop in students enrolling at the Tech Center.

If a credit-based system is reinstated, students who prefer to follow a traditional progression to graduation may do so, and the system whereby credits gained at Waldo County Technical Center may be used to satisfy graduation requirements at Mount View High School can remain in place.

The proposed policy also attempts to clarify some of the vagaries in the current policy by spelling out what alternative pathways to proficiency might look like. In addition to career and technical education, those include early college or dual-enrollment courses, online or virtual learning, apprenticeships, internships, field work, exchange programs, independent study, alternative education or adult education.

"What we really want to do is create more avenues for students to show learning," Austin said.

The board raised concerns about how non-classroom work would be evaluated and assessed. Mount View Principal Zackary Freeman said students pursuing alternative educational experiences must work with department head, guidance counselors and the principal to develop a plan for meeting standards, show that the experience involves the same level of rigor as the classroom work it is replacing, and document proficiency in the standards at the completion of the experience.

The proposed policy retains the capstone project requirement for graduation for the class of 2021 and beyond, which some teachers have opposed. Board members discussed the need to use the next four years to prepare teachers to guide students in their capstone projects, and to prepare students to work independently.

Jackson Director Lisa Cooley said helping students find their passions and preparing them to do independent work should begin earlier, in elementary or middle school.

The graduation requirements policy passed unanimously in a first reading, with Thorndike Director Jesse Hargrove absent.

Promotion, acceleration and retention of students

A second policy change approved in a first reading removes language that students would progress through content areas at “their individual maximum pace … at a shorter or longer time than others,” and instead provides that appropriate instructional supports and enrichment opportunities will be available to ensure that all students succeed academically.

Cooley said the language of individual pace was a “pretense” because it is the teacher who ultimately determines the pace of a class, but questioned whether the proposed change would return students to a system where they are told “you’re going to learn it now or you fail.”

“The whole idea was to relax the learning timeline a little bit,” she said.

Austin echoed Cooley’s concerns. He said the district’s mission and vision statement still states it is the teacher’s job to ensure students respond at their “maximum pace,” and asked what that means.

“Somebody determines whether this student is working at the pace I think they should be working at,” he said. “I think to pretend that that is somehow better is not acceptable.... (But saying) ‘you either pass my course or get an F and do it over again,’ is not acceptable either. We have to find ways to work with students and find support.”

Directors Cooley and Rachel Katz of Troy said the most common feedback they hear is that students are not receiving enough support if they are struggling and asked how and when the support referred to in the new policy would be delivered.

According to Assistant Superintendent Jean Skorapa, support could be provided through a student’s Individual Education Plan for special education students, Title 1 support during the school day for struggling students, or through the differentiated instruction the classroom teacher provides. Teachers would at different times give whole class instruction, work with small groups or work individually with a student, she said.

Cooley abstained from the vote on the policy, saying the problem will be recurring because the education system is not individualized.

“We teach the same curriculum to every student,” she said. “What happens when you design a system around averages is it doesn’t fit anyone. We are going to be grappling with this for as long as we have the education system that we have. We’re going to try to make it right and it’s never going to fit.”

Board members suggested a public hearing be held for the proposed policy changes, but no date was set for a hearing.

Director Garrett Hubbard of Knox asked if the policies will have to be changed again in the near future.

Austin said both proposed policy changes are based on the sample policies of Maine School Management Association. However, when The Journal asked for a copy of the sample policies for comparison, MSMA Director of Policy and Research Services Charlotte Bates said the association is no longer distributing them because Maine DOE's proposed Rule Chapter 134 would affect them.

“We will update them when the rulemaking process has been completed,” she said.

Rule Chapter 134 establishes “local flexibility and innovation in developing consistent graduation standards,” and allows school units to set the methods for monitoring, certifying and reporting proficiency.

RSU 3's two proposed policies appear to meet the requirements of the department's proposed rule, which states that all students must have access to multiple pathways to graduation and that criteria for certifying proficiency can include completion of state-approved Career and Technical Education programs and must be based on evidence at the same level of rigor and complexity as required in the classroom.

It also heavily emphasizes the importance of assessments. It requires "mathematical verification" of student achievement through “ongoing formative assessments that monitor student progress in each content area of the system of learning results.”

“Ensuring calculated results accurately represent students’ learning and achievement is paramount,” it reads.

Maine DOE's Rule Chapter 134 can be read here. It is scheduled to have a public hearing Aug. 14 and the comment period ends Oct. 14.

Editor's note: This story has been updated from the print version to integrate responses received from the Department of Education after press time.

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Jordan M Bailey
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Jordan Bailey has been working for The Republican Journal since 2013. She studied philosophy at Boston College and has experience in marine science education and journalism. She lives in Belfast.


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