October 8, 2008

Meaningful Graduation Standards Overdue

By Anonymous

Maine has a history of tiptoeing right to the edge of significant education reform, peering over the lip of what looks to some like a dark pit of uncertainty and then either walking away or standing still.

A decade of effort aimed at making Maine's Learning Results the immutable standard for high school graduation in Maine did not flower into a mandate that the state's school districts could live with.

Now, the state Department of Education, working with members of a committee appointed by the Legislature, is trying to work out the differences among stakeholders and come up with meaningful graduation requirements for Maine high schools.

When Maine embarked on creating its Learning Results standards in the mid-1990s, publishing them in 1997, it was seen as an innovative and aggressive move to make an already good K-12 education system better. Since then, Maine has been eclipsed by other states that have created graduation standards.

Many Maine communities have put the Learning Results model to good use. It establishes core competencies that students should have but relies on multiple assessment methods. However, actually denying a student a high school diploma for not meeting state standards is step that has proven too controversial.

Most recently, the Legislature backed off of graduation standards after the Education Department withdrew its proposal out of concerns that the pending school-consolidation mandate was as much change as districts could handle in any one year.

But the study committee and department have been working on a proposal, and some broad areas of agreement have been reached.

One of them is that multiple forms of testing should be used rather than a single, high-stakes exam. There also seems to be some sentiment for individualized education plans for students.

Both of these approaches can be useful, but study committee members and lawmakers should be wary of taking these ideas too far.

At some point, a highly individualized program becomes the enemy of standards. Which is to say, no matter the individual or his or her education plan, each student should be able to demonstrate an ability to continue his or her education and the skills needed to function as a literate and engaged citizen. Individualized programs should not become a means for setting a different standard for a student who otherwise might struggle.

If that principle is retained, then it would appear that the study commission is on a good track and the next Legislature should look forward to finally establishing graduation standards for Maine.

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