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Freshmen face tougher graduation requirements

For incoming freshmen, high school in New Jersey just got tougher.
/ Source: PhillyBurbs.com

For incoming freshmen, high school in New Jersey just got tougher.

The state Board of Education revised graduation requirements in June with the aim of preparing students for the workplace or college. Now freshmen, and those who follow, will have to accomplish more than their predecessors to earn diplomas.

With the changes, which will be completely phased in by 2016, students will have to take three years of more rigorous math courses, three years of laboratory science, and a half-year of "economics and financial literacy" classes.

"Through extensive research and many discussions, we have continuously worked with the state's education community, business community and parents to build a strong consensus without detracting from or diluting our goals," state Commissioner of Education Lucille E. Davy said. "The result is that everyone who contributed to this statewide 'conversation' has brought added value to the state-endorsed high school diploma."

The new rules were developed over a three-year period and will require students to accumulate 120 credits to graduate, an increase from 110.

Schools have already begun phasing in the three years of required math, beginning with Algebra I for last year's freshmen.

Geometry will be added for 2010-11 ninth-graders. The freshman class of 2012-13 will face a third year of math that will build upon the first two courses.

The three years of lab science began with biology for last year's freshmen.

A second year will be added for 2010-11 freshmen, who will choose from chemistry, physics or environmental science. An "inquiry-based lab or technical science" course will be added for the 2012-13 ninth-grade class.

The half-year of economics and financial literacy classes will greet incoming freshmen in 2010-11.

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Along with the new requirements, the state adopted revised core curriculum content standards in six study areas for students in kindergarten through 12th grade, including science, visual and performing arts, comprehensive health and physical education, technology, 21st century life and careers, and world languages.

The state reviews the content standards every five years.

School districts must bring their curricula in line with the revised standards by Sept. 1, 2012.

In Burlington Township, the task will not be as difficult as it may be for others because the district's requirements are already above those of the state, Superintendent Christopher Manno said.

"We have one of the highest, if not the highest, credit requirement in the state," Manno said. "We have a 145-credit graduation requirement, so our graduation standards are pretty rigorous to begin with."

Manno said the high school is able to have such a high credit requirement because of its block scheduling, "which provides students the opportunity to generally take more classes than they might in a traditional schedule."

"As you talk to schools around the county, you might find that schools that are on a block schedule might be more suited to meet the requirements than others," he added.

Marie Phillips, high school principal, said she believes the changes will better prepare students for life after high school.

"I think that all of the initiatives certainly are moving towards preparing the students for the 21st century," Phillips said. "I think the obstacle is going to be making that work within the confines of the school day and the school facility in regard to the revised curriculum initiative."

She said she does not believe the new requirements will be a hardship because township students are comfortable with raised expectations and are already taking additional math, science and social studies courses beyond the state requirements.

Carol L. Birnbohm, assistant superintendent of the Lenape Regional High School District, which includes Lenape, Cherokee, Shawnee and Seneca high schools, said the district will be proposing new graduation requirements to the Board of Education after comparing Lenape's with the state's.

"I actually found that our district has always had above and beyond what the state minimum graduation requirements already were," Birnbohm said. "So we have made some minor changes to meet the state's recommendations for our requirements."

Birnbohm said she did not want to elaborate on the changes until they are presented to the board on Wednesday.

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The new state regulations also include a move from general grade-level exams to more specific end-of-course content exams.

Such an exam already has replaced a state-level science test in biology.

Pilot end-of-course exams in algebra were administered in the spring as part of the development of the official mathematics exams. Other end-of-course exams are expected to be developed, according to the state.

Burlington Township's Phillips said end-of-course exams will present some problems.

"It has been a challenge to make arrangements to create an appropriate testing environment for students while not disrupting the school day for the students who are not testing," she said. "The other issue that really has not been considered from the state is that we are on the block schedule, so the students taking a biology class in the fall semester are not being tested on that content until May. There is that gap, so we do provide some additional review for students who have taken the courses in the fall. We're hoping that the state looks to provide that testing twice a year."

Another component of the state's changes involves "personalized student learning plans," which will use adult mentors, including parents, teachers and counselors, to help students recognize and achieve their educational goals.

Six middle schools and 10 high schools will pilot the learning plans at the sixth- and ninth-grade levels for a two-year period beginning in September.

After the results are reviewed, the state will determine whether to expand the pilot program to all students in grades six through 12.

Brianna Knight, a 14-year-old cheerleader and incoming freshman at Burlington Township, said she thinks it's important for students to learn about economics and broader subjects. She was not intimidated by the additional course load.

"It gives us better opportunities so we can focus more, and we'll learn more because we have to know more to get where we are," she said.

The teen also said that she is not worried about the possible gap between classes and end-of-course exams and that the reviews would be enough to prepare her.

Contact: dmaccar@phillyBurbs.com or 609-871-8068