The Georgia Department of Education passed a new set of graduation requirements on Sept. 13 eliminating the current "tiered" diploma standards and creating a common set of requirements for all students beginning ninth grade in 2008.
Currently, Georgia students can work toward a college preparatory, college prep with distinction, technology/career or tech/career with distinction diploma, which all require different course units to graduate.
"Regardless of what students are going to do after high school, they must have a strong core of classes in mathematics, English, social studies and science," said state Superintendent Kathy Cox in a press release. "Then they can use their electives to personalize their education, whether they are bound for the work world, higher education or both."
All students must now take four years of mathematics and science and three units in Career, Technical and Agricultural Education, foreign language and/or fine arts.
Kathy Reese, Newton County School System Director of High School Curriculum and Career, Technical and Agricultural Education (CTAE), explained how the new requirements will work and how they will affect students in Newton County.
"The new rule also specifies certain courses that all students must take - making rigorous content an expectation for all, not just some," Reese said.
For example, students will have to take certain social studies courses in order to earn the three units required for graduation.
According to Reese, the more thorough courses are in tune with the Georgia Performance Standards, which are designed to better prepare students for any postsecondary option they may explore.
"The elimination of the tiers also helps to blur the lines that separated college prep from career tech," Reese said.
The new system will also require all students to have 23 unit credits to earn their diplomas. Currently, students earning a regular college prep or career/tech diploma need 22 units to graduate, and those working toward diplomas with distinction need 24.
Some have criticized the changes increasing math and science requirements saying it will augment Georgia's already high drop-out rate.
The Southern Region Education Board reports only 61 percent of Georgia ninth graders graduate within four years, making Georgia next to last in graduation rates among southern states.
Georgia also trails behind the national average of 75 percent of ninth graders graduating in four years.
Reese said she does not think the changes will negatively affect graduation rates.
"With the new elective requirements more students should be able to take a variety of courses based on their areas of interest," Reese said. "If students are actively involved in selecting courses they want, more will get hooked and more will graduate."
Middle and high school administrators, teachers, graduation coaches and counselors have already been informed of the changes by the NCSS central office in order to begin planning for the implementation of the new rules.
"With the removal of tiered requirements, counseling and advisement will be huge issues for schools to address to ensure that students have the appropriate information for college admissions, dual enrollment, industry certification, pathways, program concentrations, foreign language, etc." Reese said.
Reese said middle school students will also receive a letter to parents in their Oct. 11 report cards explaining the changes.
The changes will be discussed at parent conferences as well, and counselors will work together to plan transitional meetings with eight grade students in the spring,
Newton High School Principal Joe Gheesling said the changes will likely not result in a traumatic transition for ninth graders, but rather a gradual implementation that will allow ample time to adjust the curriculum.
"I really don't think that anyone can positively say what the benefits or shortcomings will be," Gheesling said, "because we have not yet had an opportunity to assess the efficacy of the new standards."