It's official. Utah students, beginning with 2006-07 eighth-graders, will have to take more English, math and science in high school to graduate.
The State Board of Education cast its final vote Friday to raise graduation requirements to four credits of English and three each of math and science. The vote came after years of discussion, then backing off, in light of community concerns that electives and especially the arts, would suffer.
Those concerns remained strong at Friday's board meeting.
"As educators, we have a responsibility to preserve courses that develop creativity and life skills," said Julie Christofferson, president-elect of the Utah Music Educators Association. "We fear the exodus happening as choice is taken away from parents will continue to increase."
Board chairman Kim Burningham said he understands the fears the retired public schoolteacher taught drama and called on the public to ensure they're not realized.
"We must be vigilant to make sure our kids don't have fewer opportunities because of what we have done. I plead for that," Burningham said. "I think there's a challenge to counselors, and to teachers and to administrators and to parents and to the students themselves, to make sure they have arts opportunities. We must all take that as an opportunity to make sure this happens."
The board hopes the raised expectations will prepare students for work, college or technical education and to give them the knowledge base for lifetime learning and success.
But the board also passed a resolution acknowledging the new requirements will have costs for hiring and training teachers helping struggling students and getting more counselors to guide students early so they can maximize their chances to take electives. The state already has a shortage of math and science teachers.
The change probably won't affect every district the same way. A handful of school districts, including Garfield and Park City, already make students get those extra credits in language arts, math and science. More than three-fourths of Utah's 40 districts required four credits of language arts as of 2002. And several require three units of either math or science.
Students with certain objectives can sidestep the new requirements. They can meet with a counselor and their parents to create a student occupation plan that takes them in a more targeted direction, say, in career technical education or the arts. While that plan might not include the new requirements, it does have to be rigorous.
Also, students needing extra help on math can take up to two years to complete a single math class to meet the minimum geography or applied math II requirement.
Many courses, including accounting, debate and wildlife management would fulfill the requirements, according to a state-approved list. Districts can seek state approval for others they'd like to add.
The move was heartily supported by Utah colleges and universities and the Governor's Office of Economic Development board, and responds to legislative threats to require four years of each of the three subjects.
David Doty, Utah System of Higher Education assistant commissioner over policy, noted students eligible for Pell grants can get an extra $750 for their freshmen year and $1,300 as sophomores if they show they completed a rigorous high school study program.
"We encourage everyone to look at this increased rigor as a rising tide to bring up all ships," Salt Lake Community College President Cynthia Bioteau told the board. "It is essential as we work on the economic development of this state, and the health and vitality of a community in this state."