The New Jersey Board of Education yesterday adopted revised high school graduation standards that increase the rigor of students' math and science requirements, but not as much as some opponents had feared.
"We have waited for this day with much excitement and anticipation," Education Commissioner Lucille E. Davy said in a written statement after the vote. "The daunting idea of transforming our high schools to meet the demands of the 21st century has been the subject of a thorough, open process that has taken place over many months."
Board President Josephine E. Hernandez said the standards would give all students access to the tools they need for the future no matter what district they attended.
"There is a basic footprint everyone will have," she said. "This assures that everyone's civil rights will be met, and when they graduate high school they will have options."
Board members acknowledged the requirements were not an academic cure-all.
"Our task now is to ensure urban kids have access to quality education," Board Vice President Arcelio Aponte said. The standards must "close the achievement gap we often talked about."
Under the new requirements, students must accrue 120 credits to graduate, up from 110. They will continue to take a minimum of three years each of math and science, but all will pursue rigorous courses of study.
The requirements and their phase-in dates are:
Three years of math, including Algebra 1, which went into effect for ninth graders last fall; Algebra 1 plus geometry or a geometry-content course starting with the 2010-11 freshman class; and the previous courses plus a third year that builds on the first two math courses beginning with 2012-13 freshmen.
Three years of lab science, including biology, also in effect for current freshmen; a choice of chemistry, physics, or environmental science effective with 2010-11 freshmen; and a third lab-based or technical science beginning with 2012-13 freshmen.
A half-year of economics and financial literacy, starting with 2010-11 freshmen.
Students still must take four years of language arts and three years of social studies.
In earlier recommendations, the state considered requiring all students to take chemistry and, most controversial, Algebra 2.
The approval process included a months-long comment period. Some education and industry leaders, including Dana Egreczky, the state Chamber of Commerce's vice president for workforce development, applauded the added rigor and were sorry to see some of it go. Employers complain that many college graduates are not workforce-ready, Egreczky said, and the jobs of the future will require even more education.
Opponents expressed concern that fewer students would graduate. They argued that the state was placing more demands on struggling districts without providing adequate resources.
More than four out of five students in New Jersey receive their high school degree, one of the highest graduation rates in the nation.
Career- and technical-education students might also end up with less time to devote to their vocational training, opponents said.
Among the most vocal critics had been the Education Law Center, which recently lost a court challenge of the state's school-funding formula and serves as an advocate for many of the state's poorest districts.
Stan Karp, the center's director for secondary reform, recently called for a cost-and-implementation study of the requirements, including proposed end-of-course exams that students eventually will have to pass. The state has announced 16 schools that in the fall will begin a pilot study of personalized learning plans that also are part of the plan.
Pointing to high costs projected for secondary-school redesign in Connecticut and other states' experiences, Karp questioned the expense of the changed requirements. He contended that the state's new education-funding formula didn't provide for them or the personalized learning plans.
Yesterday, Davy denied the new requirements would cost substantially more and said the formula provided funding toward implementing them. She said that some districts may need help with staff development, and that the state planned to provide assistance.
The commissioner also said New Jersey funds its schools differently than Connecticut does. She noted that many districts also would receive federal stimulus money that could be put toward secondary-school reform.
Other changes are on the way besides those voted on yesterday.
Effective next school year, the approximately 12 percent of students who cannot pass the state High School Proficiency Examination will be given a different alternative exam from the one now administered. The exam also will be under greater controls. Districts will have a smaller window of time to administer the new test, and the exams will be graded out-of-district, said Beth Auerswald, a state education spokeswoman.
End-of-course exams also are in development, but Davy said she didn't know when they would be implemented. The state has piloted exams for Algebra 1 and 2 and biology. End-of-course exams for six other subjects are proposed as well.