Think back to high school. You took tests, you wrote papers. And you usually got just one shot to do it. All of your grades would average into one grade for the course.
“It used to be, you’d finish this unit. You’d test on it and then we’re going to move on,” said Matt Kiernan, Director of Guidance at Traip Academy in Kittery, Maine.
“Ultimately, your average would come out over a 70 and then you’d pass," he added. "Well, now, you still have to go back and show you know the information from that unit.”
In Kittery, teachers have broken subjects into micro-subjects, and you have to know them all. For example, in biology, you have to show you understand photosynthesis, mitosis and meiosis to pass. You can’t ace one part and hope it carries your grade. But you can try multiple times to show you know the material.
Kittery adopted proficiency-based education four years ago after Maine’s legislature mandated that all public high schools issue proficiency-based diplomas. The state was responding to studies showing that half of students going to college in the state needed remedial help with math and writing.
“This is a system devised not to let kids fall through the cracks,” Maine Senator Brian Langley said. “You don’t go on from one grade to the next without learning what you were supposed to have learned.”
Advocates say so-called competency or proficiency-based education forces kids to focus on learning rather than chasing grades, or for some kids, doing just enough to pass. If this doesn’t seem right for the competitive high schools in Massachusetts, think again. Phillips and Milton academies and a long list of elite private prep schools are going in this direction. And the city of Melrose is piloting a similar program.
“The biggest difference is transferring ownership to the student,” Kiernan said. “I think they are way more in the driver seat in this system.”
That’s the upside. There’s also a downside, according to Kiernan.
“They will drag things out, because they can,” he said. “So, we try to put things in place so that, even though you can reassess and reassess, sometimes you can’t reassess all year.”
Even though kids can retake tests, some say this new system has made it harder for average students to pass.
“For those kids who are getting by with their 60s and 70s they no longer can do that,” Sommer Huntress, 17, said. “You're expected to get 85. For a lot of kids, that's something that they weren't used to and that's not something that's easy for them.”
Huntress is the senior class president and a high-achiever.
She and other top students and their parents complain that the new system has made it harder for them to distinguish themselves. There’s no more class ranking or valedictorian. And they complain about the fairness of retaking tests.
“If someone retook it three or four times and finally got up to the grade that I got on my first try, I don't want that to be shown like we got the same grade,” Huntress said. “And unfortunately, when you're looking specifically at the grades, that's what it's showing.”
Most agree this system has helped average students get more attention from teachers.
John Driscoll has been watching this experiment since it started four years ago. He says it’s helped his son, who’s now a senior. But Driscoll, who’s also a school committee member, says there’s no research to show kids in Kittery are actually learning in this system.
“One of the problems with this and that I had at the beginning is that it’s largely untested,” Driscoll said. “We were ordered to do it by the state, but it’s still untested.”
The test most Kittery parents are worried about is college, and whether Kittery students will get in with what will likely be an unconventional transcript.
“We’re not too worried about it,” said Andrew King, University of Southern Maine’s admissions director. “We understand that parents and students are anxious. I think I speak for my colleagues in college admissions when I say this will not negatively impact students.”
King says the comments added by teachers on a transcript like this could help borderline students to get in. Evaluating a transcript from a Kittery student may take longer, and it could be a problem if they receive many applications with unconventional grading systems, according to King. With a mandate for the whole state of Maine to adopt competency-based transcripts, university admissions departments may need to prepare themselves.
WGBH’s coverage of K-12 education is made possible with support from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.