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Back in 2012, Maine was a trailblazer in something called proficiency-based education, in which students would be required to master specific skills and educational topics to progress and graduate from school. The idea was to allow students to learn at their own pace and not be pushed forward to advanced topics before they understood the basics. But after families balked at the new grading systems that accompanied these changes, the Maine legislature retreated and officially eliminated proficiency requirements in the summer of 2018. Schools are now free to continue teaching, grading and graduating students the traditional way.

During this six-year experiment in proficiency-based education, researchers at the Education Development Center (EDC), a nonprofit consulting and research organization in Waltham, Mass., were studying what Maine was doing. Their 118-page report, “‘In theory it’s a good idea’: Understanding implementation of proficiency-based education in Maine,” published in October 2018, serves as an unintended post-mortem of how educational reforms can go wrong. (The report was funded by the Nellie Mae Foundation, which is a major financial supporter of many efforts to promote and study proficiency- or competency-based education, including those in Maine. Nellie Mae is also among the funders of the Hechinger Report.)

The main finding is that four years after Maine’s proficiency law was enacted, a majority of students in the 11 rural high schools in the study didn’t experience many elements of a proficiency-based education.

In the fall of 2016, EDC researchers administered surveys to students, asking them questions about their learning, from how often teachers lectured to the whole class (not recommended by advocates of proficiency-based learning) to whether they could to try an assignment again later if they do poorly on it at first (a hallmark of proficiency-based learning). Based on their answer patterns, students clustered into three groups: low; low-medium; and medium exposure to 16 key elements of proficiency-based learning. Only 20 percent of students at all 11 schools had even a moderate exposure to these elements of proficiency-based learning, meaning they had some exposure to these techniques, but that exposure was inconsistent. By contrast, 30 percent of students had minimal, or barely any exposure to proficiency-based learning. Half the students were somewhere in between low to medium exposure. There was no group of students who experienced a high degree of exposure to proficiency-based education. (The survey questions can be found in Appendix C of the study , pages 73-94.)

One interesting finding in the student surveys was the trade-off between group work and proficiency-based education. Students who had the most exposure to proficiency-based teaching experienced the least group work. And the students who experienced the most group work had the least exposure to other proficiency-based teaching strategies. For teachers who have designed their curriculum so that students can move individually, at their own pace, it can be challenging to bring students back together to work collaboratively.

One positive finding was the level of student engagement. The more that students experienced aspects of proficiency-based learning, the higher their score was on a separate engagement survey. Students were much more likely to feel that school was worthwhile.

Why did so little proficiency-based learning filter down to classrooms after four years? One reason might be that it wasn’t required. Though proficiency-based diplomas were originally supposed to be issued by 2018, lawmakers kept postponing the deadline. Eventually, schools were not required to fully phase in the new requirements, proving that students had mastered skills and content in eight areas, until 2025.

On the ground, researchers didn’t witness foot-dragging or intense resistance by teachers or school leaders. Researchers spent the 2017-18 school year observing three of the 11 high schools closely and conducting interviews. They found that teachers were so consumed with establishing new graduation requirements and grading systems that they didn’t have much time or support for changing teaching practices in their classrooms. The report describes how each academic department in each high school had to determine its new graduation requirements. What did teachers want students to master in each subject? Reasonable people could disagree and did. Different schools had different standards. What was worth graduation in one school wasn’t in another.

Meanwhile, teachers and administrators had to replace conventional 0-100 grading systems with a new 1-4 score that measured how proficient a student was at meeting a standard or learning a new skill. But there was a lot of confusion over exactly what each number meant. The report described how some teachers thought it made sense to give most students 2s on their first report cards in the fall, showing that the students were working toward proficiency, something that might be attained by year end. But a 2 can feel like a mediocre grade on a four-point scale, and be discouraging, even if a student was doing everything right and working hard. The new four-point system also affected honor rolls, class rankings and valedictorians. Altering these valued traditions created a backlash among parents who wanted their kids to get into good colleges or qualify for scholarships, researchers found.

To be sure, some teachers made huge changes that would certainly have been felt in the classroom. One math teacher transferred his curriculum to an online software system in which students could move through the course independently, each working on his own “playlist” of lessons on a computer. But even then, the report described how he would introduce a new topic every Monday and work out example problems on the board for the whole class.

In other classes where teachers were attempting to differentiate instruction, the report described how it was difficult for teachers to manage everyone’s pace at once. Commonly, struggling students needed to catch up to where the teacher was lecturing, while advanced students were waiting for the majority to be ready to move on.

Karen Shakman, lead author of the study and a research scientist at EDC, said she’s been in touch with the Maine school districts since the state legislature repealed the requirement to move to proficiency standards. She said some districts planned to continue implementing proficiency-based learning voluntarily. But in the end, she said, the focus on diplomas and grades largely backfired.

“What policy lever would have been better to affect instructional practice?” she asked. “I don’t have the answer.”

But it’s an important question to ask.

This story about proficiency-based education was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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