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Oregon latest state to raise graduation requirements

KNAPPA, Ore. -- At the high school in this small coastal town, students can spot their grandparents' senior class pictures still hanging on the walls. Parents and teachers in Knappa say they know what's best for their children.

So a plan approved Thursday by the state Board of Education to make it tougher for Oregon students to graduate from high school is being met with frustration and resignation.

"They are more than just a name and a number here," Principal Nanette Hagen said of Knappa High School's roughly 200 students. "We know every student. These kids are counseled through what will happen to them next."

Oregon is the latest state to take action in a nationwide movement to raise graduation requirements after a speech Microsoft Corp. chairman Bill Gates gave to the nation's governors in 2005. Students were leaving high school with diplomas, Gates said, but without the skills needed to succeed in college or the work force.

Research backs up his claim: A recent survey of college professors in Arkansas found that 82 percent of respondents said their students were only either "somewhat" or "not at all" prepared for college.

Proposals to raise the requirements for a high school diploma -- most often four years of English, at least three years of higher level math and three years of science -- have already passed in a dozen states, including Ohio, Michigan, and Texas. More states are poised to follow.

The new requirements are finding plenty of support among politicians, colleges, and employers, but some students, principals, and parents aren't as enthused. They worry about who will pay for the extra courses and whether the new requirements will cause more students to give up and drop out.

"I've always had problems with math," said Luke Newberry, 15, a student at Knappa High. "It's hard enough as it is. The dropout rate is going to be crazy."

Proponents say requiring students to take tougher classes is one way to produce a more qualified generation of graduates.

According to studies done for the US Department of Education, the chances of earning a bachelor's degree rise as a student takes increasingly higher level math courses.

Only 7 percent of students who completed no higher than Algebra I out of a 1992 sampling went on to finish a four-year college, compared with 60 percent who took trigonometry, the agency's research showed.

States are phasing in the new requirements. Freshmen classes in New York, Oklahoma, and South Dakota are guinea pigs this year.

The requirements vary by state. Minnesota requires all students to take math through 12th grade, including a statistics and probability course, while Mississippi's four-year math requirement specifies only that students must take at least two courses beyond Algebra I.

Other states have inched away from the traditional curriculum to create a safety net for students who aren't college-bound.

Oregon, for instance, will now require three years of science, two of them traditional laboratory sciences. But students could fill the third requirement with courses such as agricultural or computer science.

At least seven states have "opt-out" provisions for students whose parents sign a waiver excusing them from the requirements, said Matt Gandal, executive vice president of Achieve Inc., a Washington-based nonprofit working on raising state education standards. Such "opt-out" clauses are not without controversy, he said.

"In Arkansas, where this will be the first year it counted for the freshmen, 10 percent opted out," Gandal said. "That was higher than they liked, and now there's debate about whether to do away with the opt-out clause."

Even with the more flexible requirements and the opt-out clauses, the proposals have upset some in rural school districts that already have difficulty attracting qualified science and math teachers and wonder who will teach the extra classes.

Unless Oregon lawmakers dedicate money to help implement and maintain the proposed new rules , Knappa High School will probably have to trim its already meager elective offerings, Superintendent Rick Pass said.

Members of the state board say that they are sympathetic to such concerns, but that Oregon's students can't risk falling behind in a rapidly changing world.

"We really need to increase the rigor of our high school diploma in order for our students to have a successful future," board member Nikki Squire said.