2018-04-12 / Editorial

Proficiency-based grading? Not all reforms make sense

The Right Side
by Mike Coleman

“Follow the money” is always good advice as we look at the public arena. When any level of government spends our money, we should demand it do so only when there is a concrete benefit to society as a whole. We should demand transparency, efficiency and quality. As taxpayers and residents, we deserve nothing less. Our city, town, county, state and federal governments should continually seek out ways to perform their functions better and at lower costs.

This also applies to government-funded public schools. Our schools are tasked with educating our youth so that they may take their place in society as productive and contributing members. It is no easy task to educate the wide spectrum of students who fill the classrooms of our public schools. That spectrum ranges from special needs students who may have developmental disabilities through those who may be classified as gifted. For some of these students a good outcome may be helping them develop skills to be only partially independent and partially self-supporting. For some it will be lifting them out of complacency, helping them identify a passion that will drive them to achieve more than they thought possible. For others it will be pushing them to achieve great things in the sciences, humanities, performing arts or athletics.

The world is a competitive place. At times, in business it can be cruel and unforgiving. Success is never guaranteed. Shielding our kids from disappointment and the mentality that everyone deserves a trophy only sets them up for failure in the future. Teaching our kids to strive to do better, to improve, to excel and to win will serve them well in the real world. Teaching them to do just enough to get by will handicap them in a competitive marketplace.

The latest fad in education involves dropping the traditional 0-100 scale and A-F letter grades in favor of a 1 through 4 scale: 1 – does not meet proficiency, 2 – partially meets proficiency, 3 – meets proficiency, and 4 – exceeds proficiency. Coupled with the trend to eliminate class rankings it’s easy to see students earning a 3 and deciding they are all set.  None to stretch for a 4 because a 3 is “good enough.”

Maine was one of the first states to adopt a proficiency based diploma law in 2012. It set certain standards that must be met for a student to qualify for a diploma. There are provisions for individual exceptions where those are appropriate. While it did not specify how students were to be evaluated, virtually every school in Maine is adopting proficiency-based education along with the 1-4 grading system.

Part of what is happening with proficiency-based education is positive. It recognizes that children learn in different ways. Practical, hands on learning is essential for some. Others learn well with traditional, book-based methods in a classroom setting.

Some of what is happening is not so positive. Parents are upset and don’t understand the new reporting system. Proficiency itself is poorly if at all defined by the state. In fact, the state Department of Education has been unable to set final rules for the implementation of proficiency-based diplomas. As the department has engaged stakeholders across the state there is much confusion regarding which reforms make sense and which may do more harm than good. One “reform” which is clearly causing harm is the 1-4 grading system with Maine students applying to colleges. Admissions offices rely on the 0-100 scale to create a standardized GPA to in part determine who deserves a seat in the incoming freshman class. Proficiency-based transcripts make it difficult to differentiate the students and are considered a nuisance by admissions officials according to one of the experts who testified on a bill to push back proficiency-based diplomas by an additional year to 2022.

This among other issues with proficiency-based diplomas led Rep. Heidi Sampson (R-Alfred) to offer an amendment to LD1666, “An Act To Ensure the Successful Implementation of Proficiency-based Diplomas by Extending the Timeline for Phasing in Their Implementation,” to repeal of the state mandated proficiency-based diploma. Districts could adopt proficiency-based education if they chose or the standards in place before. This became a separate bill as LD 1900, “An Act To Repeal Proficiency-based Diplomas.” This could be one of those rare instances in Augusta where liberals and conservatives are finding common ground. The winners? Students, teachers, administrators and parents. The losers? The educational consultants whose futures are heavily investing in proficiency-based education. We taxpayers have already poured money into this. It’s time to cut our losses.

LD 1666 and LD 1900 have work sessions scheduled in the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee scheduled for Friday, April 13. Contact your state representative and state senator and urge them to vote for full repeal of proficiency-based diplomas.

Mike Coleman is a former town councilor in Old Orchard Beach and was a member of the Maine Republican State Committee from 2010 through 2017 where he served as budget chairman under three separate state chairmen. He represented Maine at the Republican National Convention as an alternate in 2012. He recently left the Republican Party and became an Independent.

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