Forty out of 50 states lack a technology component in their high school graduation requirements, according to a report issued by the Milken Exchange on Education Technology last August. With an ever-increasing demand for technologically skilled workers in industries across the board, some experts wonder why this is so.

Of the ten states with a technology graduation requirement, Delaware, Maryland, Nevada, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, South Dakota, and Texas all require students to take technology coursework. Alabama, Mississippi, and North Carolina require such coursework only if students fail to pass a computer skills test or to demonstrate proficiency with technology.

The content of the technology curriculum varies from state to state. In many, the focus is on computer skills. In North Carolina, students must learn computer ethics and skills such as keyboarding, word processing, desktop publishing, spreadsheet and database use, and multimedia presentations. Students across the state must pass a standardized computer skills test, and generally do so before leaving middle school, said Janice Johnson, section chief for technology planning and support in North Carolina.

In other states, “technology” is defined more broadly and school districts are given flexibility in designing ways to meet the requirement. “The main focus of technology education is problem solving,” said Marquita Friday, a career and technology education specialist with the state of Maryland. “Students are taught practical knowledge using real-life situations.”

Since 1994, Maryland high school students have been required to complete one credit in technology education in order to graduate, but the coursework does not necessarily focus on computers. School districts in Maryland create curriculum based on a statewide framework which specifies that students should “discover, create, solve problems, and construct by using a variety of tools, materials, processes, and computer systems.”

Barry Burke, president-elect of the International Technology Education Association and the director of career and technology education in Maryland’s Montgomery County, praised the state’s broad definition of technology education. Burke said that the development of problem solving skills is more useful than learning a specific set of computer applications.

“Montgomery County has been rigorous in coming up with courses which meet the framework,” he said. High school students there choose from among five or six courses which meet the requirement. Computer Science is one choice, but students can also take courses like Exploring Technological Concepts or Biological Science. In all courses fulfilling the requirement, the focus is on problem solving.

Burke drew one example of the kind of problems students are given from the Technological Innovations course. “Students might be given information regarding water runoff in Maryland, which recently contributed to problems with phisteria blooms in our waterways,” he said. Students would then work in teams to develop ways to prevent the hazardous blooms and the health problems associated with them—for example, one team might use different materials to build a filter.

Since each school district determines its own technology curriculum, not all Maryland students receive the same choices. Some districts develop courses especially to meet the requirement or require that all students take a certain course, while others review existing courses to determine whether they meet the framework’s criteria.

This approach can have its problems, said William Fiske, state educational technology coordinator in Rhode Island. In his state, where schools are also responsible for individually applying statewide guidelines, he has seen schools go to extremes.

“In one school district, people were up in arms because the requirement was interpreted as being about computer programming,” he said. “Everyone was going to have to take a course in a programming language, and parents wanted something more practical.” On the other extreme, a different school interpreted the requirement as being much less rigorous, and wanted to satisfy it with a keyboarding course.

Some experts say states should concentrate on delivering basic skills in reading, writing, and math before dedicating more resources to technology.

“What are parents asking for? They’re asking for basic skills,” Doyle Winter, executive director of the Washington Association of School Administrators, told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “We better do a damn good job on that before we start looking out for some of these other areas.”

According to the American Federation of Teachers, many states still lack clear standards for student competency in basic areas like English, math, science, and social studies.

In some states, the question of a specific technology requirement simply hasn’t come up. Exit requirements in Wisconsin are focused on the “core four”: reading/language arts, science, math, and social studies.

“There has been no particular move to include other specific areas like technology,” said Richard Sorensen, school library media consultant for the state. “Technology literacy is integrated into the regular curriculum.”

Ken Starkman, technology education consultant for Wisconsin, agreed: “Technology is a tool like a pen or a pencil. Students need to know how to get information, and technology education is ingrained in classes across the board.”

Even where there is widespread support for a technology graduation requirement, it’s not always easy to implement one.

In many states, local control of schools is a cherished principle. This means that statewide requirements can be tough to impose or, if instituted, are subject to local interpretation, as in Maryland and Rhode Island.

A lack of agreed-upon standards forms another obstacle. “There is no generally accepted body of specific knowledge regarding technology that everyone should have,” according to Annell Simcoe, professor of education at Rutgers University.

In addition, the continual development of new technologies means that requirements which are very specific risk becoming obsolete quickly. “Technology has progressed at a extraordinarily fast pace,” Simcoe commented.

But a lack of course requirements or tests specifically covering technology does not mean that states aren’t addressing the issue, Simcoe cautioned. “There is no argument or disagreement that technology must be integral to the schools; it is there and students are using it as a learning tool that replaces books in some instances and tools of the trade in others.”

Educators in other states—including those with technology components in their graduation requirements—generally agree. Friday, Johnson, and Fiske all pointed out that technology is used throughout the curriculum and that technology-related learning outcomes appear in curricular guidelines for several subjects.

Indeed, the importance of computers and other technology is becoming so widely accepted that the debate now centers on “what” rather than “if.”

“Few would argue that schools should have books, pencils, and desks. In this day and age, few would argue that schools should have technology. There will continue to be arguments about what should be taught, how it should be used, and what equipment should be available. This is also true with civics, literature, science, and mathematics,” said Simcoe.