The debate in Maryland over raising the standards for high school graduation intensified today, with supporters of vocational education charging that raising academic standards without requiring a vocational course would squeeze vocational programs out of the high schools.

As members of the Maryland State Board of Education listened during a five-hour hearing, about two dozen supporters of vocational education also predicted that the increased requirements would force many low-achieving students who are not college bound to drop out of high school.

"Our nation is at risk not only at the level of high thinkers, but at the grass roots of the family too. Excellence is more than high level science and math," Ruth Lee Carroll, a home economics teacher from Cecil County, said.

The board also heard from about 20 supporters of the arts, businessmen as well as teachers, who urged the board to approve a proposal that high school graduates take at least one fine arts course. That would assure, one witness said, that students "know what it is to be human."

The board is considering recommendations from state Superintendent David W. Hornbeck that include adding a year of fine arts and another year of mathematics to the current core of required subjects. Hornbeck also proposed requiring students to earn at least five credits each year during their four years of high school.

At today's hearing, board members declined to say whether the impassioned testimony had helped them make up their minds.

The dispute in Maryland is part of a widespread controversy as schools across the nation raise academic requirements in response to complaints that student performance has deteriorated over the past two decades. Last year education problems were underlined by a series of major reports, several of which charged that students were taking too many "soft" nonacademic courses.

Over the past three years, according to the Education Commission of the States, some 40 states, including Virginia, and the District of Columbia have increased the academic requirements for a high school diploma. Virginia school officials have said that since their new requirements went into effect, enrollment in many nonacademic subjects has declined.

Critics of the tougher requirements, chiefly school officials and teachers, have charged that some of the moves unwisely narrow the curriculum and hamper the efforts of American schools for more than 50 years to accommodate the interests and abilities of many different students.

Yesterday Robert L. Knight, president of the Maryland Association of Technical, Trade, and Industrial Educators, said the stiffer academic requirements are "promoting the elitist notion that college is the only worthy goal of a high school education."

Another witness, Glenn R. Munch, head of the Marketing and Distributive Education Teachers of Maryland, asked board members, when they applied for a job, "How many times were you asked about your concept of romantic literature or baroque music?"

But Ann Richardson, president of the Maryland Alliance of Arts Educators, said a requirement is needed in fine arts -- either music, visual arts, drama or dance -- in order to "enrich and interpret society." Richardson said, "I think Americans are so practical that we are a little afraid of beauty."

In other testimony, some witnesses, including an official of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, criticized Hornbeck's proposal that all schools allow students to get graduation credit through a community service project. Critics said the idea would divert funds from academic programs and would be difficult to administer.

The state board plans to act on the proposed requirements within the next two months, said board president Frederick K. Schoenbrodt.