Oregon students will find it a bit tougher to graduate from high school in future years.
The state Board of Education voted Thursday to ratchet up the requirements for earning a high school diploma, beginning with the class of 2014.
The new plan raises the bar by requiring this year's fifth-graders to take four years of English, three years of math and three years of science. To qualify, math must be at the Algebra I level or higher. Science classes must include two laboratory courses. The new demands, proponents say, will increase a student's likelihood to achieve a college degree.
Local educators reacted to the board's decision with a mixture of optimism and skepticism. While they see the boost in science, math and language arts requirements as a positive upgrade for some students, they also worry about drop-out rates and ignoring students who aren't on the college track.
Wade Smith, assistant superintendent for the Morrow County School District, said he is genuinely torn.
"Higher standards are a good thing," he said. "Kids will rise to the bar you set for them."
However, he said, the new state standards don't consider the students who have other plans: the military, trade school or other non-college destination.
"It's one-size-fits-all," he said. "What about the kids who want to become artists or musicians?"
He also worries that the drop-out rate may spike among kids on the fringe.
"I'm fearful we'll lose some of these kids," Smith said. "We may see some of these at-risk kids walking out our doors."
Hermiston Assistant Superintendent Mark Mulvihill said the more-rigorous diploma will allow schools to veer away from the unpopular Certificate of Initial Mastery (CIM) and Certificate of Advanced Mastery (CAM). The CIM, not mandatory, is awarded to those who pass state tests in reading, writing, math and science and complete work samples.
"It's a shift to strengthen the high school diploma," he said. "The public never fully bought into CIM and CAM."
Mulvihill said a higher bar will better prepare students on the college track, but he too worries about students on the edge.
"The challenges are apparent," he said. "With higher levels of performance, you'll have more difficulty in getting kids to attain that diploma."
Mulvihill said the state board made a giant attempt to discover the opinions of various stakeholders before they voted.
"They collected a lot of feedback from parents, business leaders and educational leaders throughout the state," he said.
Jim Keene, superintendent of the Pendleton School District, watched the board proceeding via streaming video from the Oregon Department of Education Web site and said board members were of one mind.
He said Microsoft chairman Bill Gates sparked a drive to raise graduation requirements when he spoke to a group of the nation's governors in 2005, convincing them that students were ill-prepared to succeed in college or the job market.
Lack of preparedness means a weak pool of students flowing into challenging fields like engineering and science.
Keene said he doesn't think the extra rigor will cause Pendleton students to head for the exits and that most of the added math and science requirements are already phased in.
"The question that is there is for students who have selected other career pathways," Keene said.
Still, he believes students will rise to the state's level of expectation.
"I don't see a big downside unless a student has hit the wall in mathematics," Keene said.
Ralph Brown, principal of McLoughlin High School in Milton-Freewater, said he will go along willingly with the state decision, but echoes fears the one-size-fits-all approach may frustrate students who aren't on the college track.