The Maryland Board of Education, in line with a national trend of upgrading educational standards, yesterday approved tougher graduation requirements for the state's 220,000 public high school students, raising from two to three the years of required math and adding one year each of fine arts and practical arts.
In the first reshuffling of graduation standards in more than a decade, Maryland joined Missouri, Utah and Washington State in requiring all students to take a year of practical arts, which include vocational education, home economics, computer studies and industrial arts.
While a few of Maryland's 24 local school districts already require an additional math or fine arts credit, school officials said none of the districts now require a year of practical arts.
The board also created a "certificate of merit" for students who perform well in a program more rigorous than the new one, and took steps to ensure that seniors enroll in a minimum number of courses.
"The effect of these graduate requirements sets higher standards and thus raises expectations, and that's the overall point," said state Superintendent David W. Hornbeck, who proposed stricter requirements last year.
The board approved the package of changes on a vote of 8 to 1, with member Mary Elizabeth Ellis, from Wicomico County, in opposition.
"I'm not sure we're meeting the needs of all the students in these requirements," Ellis said, citing a lack of attention to gifted students.
She called the changes a "band-aid" approach to improving high school curricula and urged unsuccessfully that the board examine additional studies before voting.
The board must formally approve the requirements at its June meeting, but members indicated they will not change the package and instructed staff to implement the standards for students entering the ninth grade this fall.
While the requirements drew praise from some local school officials, others complained that new mandatory courses in fine arts and practical arts will severely strain resources and detract from efforts to stress basic academic courses.
"My concern is that we'll have to go out and hire more teachers in fine and practical arts and we will still have overloaded English classes," said Prince George's County Superintendent John A. Murphy. "With the limited funds we have available, I want to place priority on the basic skills."
School officials in Montgomery and Baltimore counties, however, were pleased.
"We will not have problems with it," said Lois Martin, associate superintendent for instruction in Montgomery.
The school board did not change from 20 the total number of credits required in grades nine through 12, but increased from 12 to 15 the number of mandatory credits, thereby decreasing the number of elective courses a student can take.
The standards are considered minimum, and, in many cases, students will be held to stricter requirements by their local school jurisdictions.
The state school board also approved a provision requiring students to complete no fewer than four of their required 20 credits during their senior year.
That measure was aimed at preventing students from loading most of their requirements into the first three years of high school and leaving only one or two courses for senior year.
New graduate requirements have been under consideration for more than a year, and the board had made it clear that some changes were in the offing. But adoption of the practical arts requirement was a surprise.
"I'm stunned . . . the board has turned down so many proposals to include practical arts, I assumed it would fail," said Janice Piccinini, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association.
The teacher organization had supported the upgraded standards, but had argued that students should be given an option between fine arts and practical arts as an additional requirement.
Board member Lawrence A. Shulman, from Montgomery County, said he also was shocked at the inclusion of practical arts. He was one of two members to voice opposition to the measure.
"I don't believe practical arts is a core requirement, nor should it be required of every student," Shulman said.
Industrial arts teachers had waged a well-organized lobbying campaign, urging board members to add the mandatory course.
"I'm very pleased," said Roland Phelps, vice president of the Maryland Industrial Arts Association, a teacher organization.
"Today's vote reflects their realization that this is something the students need," Phelps said.
Board President Frederick K. Schoenbrodt explained that the board had been under some criticism that the requirements it was proposing were purely academic.
"We're considering all aspects of a child's education," he said.
Hornbeck, who had originally proposed even stricter requirements, said he did not expect the autumn implementation of the additional mandatory courses to place an insurmountable burden on school districts because many of the districts already are requiring three years of math and offer fine arts and practical arts as electives.
Prince George's, Montgomery and Baltimore counties have all recently adopted the additional math credit.
Montgomery and Baltimore counties also have added the fine arts requirement.