When the Montgomery County Board of Education passed a resolution increasing high school graduation requirements this week, it also voted that fine arts should have a place in the classroom of the 1980s.

The board voted 4 to 1 with two abstentions at a meeting Monday night to require students entering ninth grade next year to take a year of fine arts and a third year of mathematics. The resolution increased the number of courses from 20 to 22.

The decision follows a debate for the past year by the Maryland State Board of Education on increasing graduation requirements. It is expected to reach a decision at the end of December and is also likely to add a year of mathematics and a year of fine arts.

Montgomery schools had no requirements for fine arts, defined as art, music, dance and drama classes. The last time the board changed the academic graduation requirements was in 1974 when it increased the number of mandatory academic credits from 18 to 20.

"The issue is what do we want in the way of knowledge and skills for our high school graduates," said board member Robert Shoenberg at the meeting. "What really bothers me is that fine arts is being defined as impractical."

Montgomery County joins other local school districts, and a number of districts across the country, that have increased graduation requirements in the past few years in reaction to national studies citing poor academic standards in public schools. Most school systems have increased the number of math, science and social studies requirements. Fairfax County last year added one fine arts and one practical arts course requirement.

The District last year increased from 17.5 to 20.5 the number of required courses, and Prince George's increased math and social studies requirements for the graduating class of 1987.

While the math requirement was supported by the entire board, members during the debate differed on whether the board should require fine arts instead of a combination of fine arts and vocational courses.

"The fine arts requirement is being added because it represents a way of encountering the world," Shoenberg said yesterday. "We're not interested in having the student, for example, turn out a beautiful painting that will win a prize, but in having the student encounter the world visually instead of in writing."

Board members James Cronin and Marilyn Praisner, who abstained on the vote, and member Blair Ewing, who voted against it, said the reason for adding fine arts, rather than other courses, was not well defined.

"I think this is a bandwagon without a clear idea of what we're doing," Cronin said at the meeting. "It's difficult to vote against because then [it seems like] you're saying, 'I don't want excellence in academics.' "