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How Maine’s major education reform effort dissolved into a patchwork of policies

This past fall, Ragan Toppan, 16, walked out of her Algebra II class at Deering High School to protest her school’s recent switch to standards-based grading.

Toppan, a junior at the high school in Portland, Maine, was angry that the administration hadn’t sought student input about the change, and worried that a switch to a 1-4 grading system, with a 3 the highest possible grade on some assignments, would hurt her chances of getting into a good college. On her transcript, those 3s, which signify proficiency in a standard, would appear as 85s, or B’s.

“I shoot for A’s on all my work, but a lot of teachers don’t give you an option to go ‘above and beyond’” and get a 4, she said in an interview. “An 85 is not going to cut it for college.”

Her mother, a longtime English teacher at Deering, sees things a little differently. Kathryn Toppan switched to a 1-4 scale even before the administration required it, finding it “less arbitrary” than the traditional 1-100. “It’s easier to communicate to students where they’re at and what they need to do to improve,” she said.

She sympathizes with students, like her daughter, who have seen their high school careers disrupted by change. But she believes there is no other way. “Sometimes it doesn’t seem fair, but there’s sort of a greater good,” she said.

Seven years after the state passed a law that required Maine’s high schools to award diplomas on the basis of demonstrated “proficiency” in eight key areas, and nine months after the legislature repealed that mandate, the debate over proficiency-based diplomas continues to divide districts, teachers and families here, even as the concept spreads to other schools and states.

In a recent survey of the state’s superintendents conducted by the University of Southern Maine, roughly a quarter of respondents said they planned to stick with a proficiency-based diploma, even though the law no longer requires it. Thirty-eight percent said they would likely return to awarding diplomas based on the accumulation of credit hours. Another quarter preferred “hybrid” approaches, and 11 percent said it was too soon to speculate.

The only thing most everyone agrees on is this: The roll out of the 2012 law, LD 1422, was a disaster, plagued by insufficient funding and inadequate guidance from the top. While the state’s Department of Education cycled through commissioners (six in six years) superintendents struggled to figure out the law, largely on their own.

The result today is a patchwork of local policies, with pockets of proficiency-based grading surrounded by schools that have stuck with traditional methods of evaluating students — or reverted to them recently. Districts have spent thousands of dollars on consultants and software upgrades, and the racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps that the law was supposed to help eliminate remain largely unchanged.

Now, as a new governor and legislature grapple with these gaps, many parents and educators are left asking: How did Maine get into this mess?

READ MORE: Documenting Maine’s failure to implement proficiency-based education

Proficiency-based education is a wonky term, but in essence it means that students master certain skills before they move up a grade or graduate. The amount of time they’ve spent in the classroom (“seat time”) doesn’t matter, nor does the number of credits they’ve accumulated.

In theory, proficiency-based models let students learn at their own pace, speeding up if they grasp a concept quickly, and getting extra help if they struggle. In practice, though, it can take many different forms, including independent study, learning communities and online programs. It doesn’t always include changes to grading — and indeed, Maine’s law didn’t require any.

To supporters like former state senator Brian Langley, a longtime culinary arts instructor and the sponsor of the now-repealed LD 1422, proficiency-based diplomas are a way to ensure that all kids graduate with the skills they’ll need to succeed in a changing economy.

“It’s about equity,” he said. The law “was bringing a voice to the kids who don’t have helicopter parents, so when they left high school, their diplomas would mean something.”

The entrance to Portland’s Deering High School, the most diverse high school north of Boston. Nearly half the enrollees are students of color. Photo: Kelly Field, for The Hechinger Report

Maine’s march toward a proficiency-law began in 1997, with the adoption of the Maine Learning Results, which set statewide standards in eight content areas.

Then in 2000, Tom Vander Ark, the first executive director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation education program, heard about Chugach, a district in Alaska that had seen dramatic gains in test scores after switching to a proficiency-based model, and he decided to visit. (The Gates Foundation is among the many funders of The Hechinger Report.)

There, in tiny schools reachable only by plane, Vander Ark spoke with students who “could tell you exactly what they were learning, why it was important, and what they had to do to move to the next level in each subject,” he said in an interview. “I had never seen kids so in charge of their learning.”

Vander Ark gave the Alaska Council of School Administrators $5 million to bring the Chugach district’s model to six other Alaska districts. Then Chugach, with its 214 students, created a nonprofit, the Re-Inventing Schools Coalition, and eventually took its approach nationwide.

Meanwhile, in Maine, a handful of districts were experimenting with similar methods. Among them was RSU 2, a far-flung district in central Maine which includes the towns of Hallowell and Monmouth. In 2007, Maine’s then-commissioner, Susan Gendron, invited RISC to a summer conference for superintendents in Bar Harbor. At the end of the conference, she took a survey: 80 percent of attendees said they supported the RISC philosophy, but only a quarter said they were ready to make the leap, she said in an interview.

The state offered schools $50,000 grants to subsidize RISC training, Gendron recalled. Six districts were approved. When the state withdrew its financial support for the training a year and a half in, citing budget shortfalls, the districts formed a consortium to pool their resources: the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning. At least one of the early pioneers has since backed away from a standards-based diploma. But one district has been steadfast in its commitment, staying the course through three superintendents: RSU 2.

READ MORE: What if personalized learning was less about me and more about us?

In a math classroom inside Monmouth Academy in the RSU 2 district, 20 students, ranging from freshmen to seniors, sat in clusters of four, working independently on small dry erase boards. Some were still studying geometry, others had advanced to Algebra II. One group was just starting on probability.

Elizabeth Ross, a ninth-year teacher in the district, buzzed between them, stopping to show two juniors, Violette Beaulieu and Hannah Levesque, how a parabola can dip from positive to negative.

When they understood the concept, Ross moved on, giving another group a lesson in operations with square roots. Then she moved on again.

After an hour of shuttling between students, Ross was sweaty and flushed, the carton of yogurt on her desk only half eaten. It’s hard work differentiating curriculum for so many students, but Ross believes it’s worth it.

“I feel like they learn more,” she said. “When I give them a test, they have to know all of it” to earn a 3 and be deemed proficient. “Not just 70 percent.”

Students said they like the individualized instruction, and appreciate the opportunity to retake exams if they have a bad day. They worry, though, how they’ll fare in college, where professors are less forgiving, and there’s thousands of dollars in tuition at stake.

“Here, if I get something wrong, I’ll be able to go back and fix it. In college, you can’t,” said Beaulieu. “That kind of freaks me out.”

RSU 2 is often held up as a standards-based success story. Nearly a decade in, the culture of competence is deeply ingrained in the district; most of today’s high schoolers have never experienced anything different.

Getting to this point wasn’t easy, though. Parents put up a fight, saying the change would make it harder for their children to compete for scholarships and admission to selective schools, according to a case study published by the state Department of Education.

Elizabeth Ross, a math teacher at Monmouth Academy, explains a chart that shows which standards students have met. Photo: Kelly Field, for The Hechinger Report

But the momentum — and the spending — for statewide reform was continuing to build. In 2009, Gates gave a half million dollars to the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, which describes itself as New England’s largest education-focused philanthropy, to lead a four-state effort to remake the region’s schools. (Nellie Mae is among the many funders of The Hechinger Report.) Nellie Mae passed on the money to the Portland-based Great Schools Partnership, which used it to coordinate the New England Secondary School Consortium, a coalition advocating for proficiency-based diplomas, among other things.

The following year, Gates gave Nellie Mae an additional $1.75 million to identify and fund “proficiency-based pathways.” Nellie Mae began investing its own money in Maine too, giving $9 million to the cities of Sanford and Portland in 2011.

But some Portland parents were wary of the award. Anna Collins, a Portland mother and attorney, said she saw the grants as an attempt to build support for LD 1422, which had just been approved by the state legislature’s education committee and would soon be debated by the whole legislature.

“They can say ‘We’ve got some of the biggest districts in the state on board, you have to pass this,’” she told the Bangor Daily News at the time.

Nellie Mae was supporting the bill in other ways, too. In 2011, it gave $50,000 to an education business group for its “political/legislative work.” The coalition used the funds to take members of the education committee on a retreat to a proficiency-based school shortly before the full legislature voted on the bill.

Ed Cervone, the current executive director of Educate Maine, said LD 1422 was an attempt to bring accountability to the Maine Learning Results, which the state had passed 15 years earlier, but never adequately enforced.

“This wasn’t some radical new pathway,” he said. “We were looking at finishing the pathway put off by governors prior.”

When the legislature debated the bill, lawmakers who represented communities in RSU 2 spoke against it, citing complaints they’d received from parents and students in their district. “No other state has embraced this model for all their school systems,” warned Sen. Earle McCormick, a former teacher who represented part of RSU 2. “We’re not ready for this.”

The heavy involvement of unelected, out-of-state foundations in advancing proficiency-based diplomas stoked suspicion and resentment among some Maine parents and teachers. They created a Facebook Group called “Mainers Concerned About Proficiency Based Learning,” where they shared lobbying reports, grant details and consulting contracts, and swapped horror stories and conspiracy theories. The group remains active today, with 1,500 members.

“We are guinea pigs for a new, experimental method of teaching and learning that has been designed to benefit content providers rather than students,” wrote Emily Talmage, a fourth-grade teacher in Lewiston in a 2015 post detailing spending by Nellie Mae.

Charlie Toulmin, Nellie Mae’s policy director, insists his foundation wasn’t the driving force behind the law.

“They were already walking down this path, and they and us sort of found a match in our interests,” he said.

READ MORE: The future of proficiency-based education

In Portland’s two traditional high schools — Deering and Portland High School — classes look and sound much as they did prior to 2012. The only signs that things have changed are posters that hang in some classrooms, enumerating the standards and proficiency levels.

The district plans to “stay the course,” though most of the ongoing change is happening behind the scenes, in departmental meetings where teachers hash out graduation requirements, and in online gradebooks, where teachers spend hours assigning standards to assignments, and rating students on levels of proficiency. It’s a ton of data entry, but none of it has appeared on students’ report cards, which still include traditional numerical grades.

That frustrates teachers like Ericka Lee-Winship, who would “much rather spend time planning exciting lessons than sitting at my computer clicking buttons.”

She believes the state’s shift to proficiency-based diplomas was driven “100 percent” by foundations and interest groups. “Have you found a grassroots movement pushing for this?” she asked.

Beth Arsenault, who has taught in Portland High School since 1996, has practiced many of the habits of proficiency-based learning for years — letting students retake tests and keeping her grade book open, for example. In her alternative education classes for at-risk students, the mantra is “you’re not passing yet.”

So she’s not philosophically opposed to proficiency-based education; she just doesn’t like it being imposed on teachers by outsiders.

With neighboring districts backing away from proficiency-based diplomas — including those centered in Scarborough and South Portland — many teachers here hope theirs will be the next to fall.

In the meantime, Deering’s teachers have agreed to award up to a 4 on all assignments that use the 1-4 scale, according to Principal Gregg Palmer. He said he didn’t think many teachers limited students to 3s before, but “I can’t say it never happened.”

Ragan Toppan, now 17, is among the students who are still hoping for more dramatic change. She was pleased in January when Deering took a small step backward, giving teachers the option of grading using either a 1-4 or 60-100 scale. But the compromise has the potential to complicate transcripts, and thus the college application process, for students like her.

“We can’t forget that kids are planning for their futures,” she said. “This may be a test run for the administration, but these are real lives, real students.”

This story about proficiency based learning was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.