Raising graduation bar poses challenges for school districts

August 23, 2015

Parents from Familias Unidas rally outside LAUSD headquarters in 2010 to promote college readiness.

Graduating more college-ready students ranks as one of most important education initiatives in California, leading Los Angeles Unified School District to implement a sweeping plan requiring all students to complete a college-prep curriculum before they earn a diploma.

In 2005 the nation’s second-largest district joined a growing number in the state that began aligning their graduation requirements with the A-G sequence, the minimum standards needed for admission into the University of California and California State University systems and other four-year colleges and universities.

But like many of the other districts, Los Angeles Unified struggled to implement the new requirement. Officials said they miscalculated the large number of students who would have trouble with the college-prep coursework. The loss in state funding caused by the recession hampered other districts’ efforts to add intervention programs, making them reluctant to punish students who could not meet the tougher targets.

Los Angeles Unified eventually adjusted its ambitious plan after officials realized that far too many students were at risk of not graduating. More than 65,000 students were funneled into summer school this year because they were behind on credits.

Other districts that require the A-G sequence have also eased their standards. They include allowing Ds in college-prep courses to count toward graduation credits, even as UC and CSU accept only Cs or higher. Some districts allow students to opt out of the A-G curriculum altogether if they decide college might not be their ultimate path, creating a two-tiered system.

These loopholes essentially render districts’ college-prep curriculum meaningless if many students still can’t qualify for four-year colleges after graduation, some critics said. Also, asking more of students academically and then failing to provide them with the needed resources sets up many for failure, they said.

But supporters of the A-G graduation requirements said the best way to ensure more students from diverse backgrounds attend college is to increase what’s asked of them. And the progress made so far has led to more college-ready students. Statewide, the number of UC/CSU-eligible graduates has grown by 24 percent over the past decade, with districts adopting the A-G curriculum seeing some of the largest increases, according to state Department of Education figures.

‘Leveling the playing field’ with A-G

(Click on the picture to see a larger image) California’s minimum graduation requirements and how they compare with A-G coursework.

California’s minimum graduation requirements have largely remained unchanged since 2003 even as business leaders, politicians and activists have called for high schools to produce more college-ready graduates.

In response, many districts across the state increased the requirements for diplomas. Some districts adopted the A-G sequence – a series of 15 college-prep courses in English, math, science, foreign language and other core electives – created by the UC system and used by CSU to give students and schools a clear understanding of the coursework needed for college admission.

In 1998, San Jose Unified became the first district to align graduation requirements with A-G coursework, starting with its graduating class of 2002. District leaders said that too few Latinos where graduating eligible to apply for four-year schools. In 1998, about 20 percent of Latino students graduated eligible for UC and CSU admission, compared to the districtwide rate of 38 percent. The policy change allowed the district to “level the playing field” while increasing the overall number of college-ready students, officials said.

The district saw modest gains by 2002. (The district initially reported that for 2002 the Latino UC/CSU-eligible rate increased to 44 percent and the districtwide rate grew to 65 percent. But officials later said they mistakenly included in those figures students who earned Ds in A-G coursework.) The district’s UC/CSU-eligible rates continued to climb gradually in subsequent years.

After San Jose Unified made A-G coursework the default graduation requirement, at least a dozen other districts followed. They include some of California’s largest: Los Angeles Unified, San Diego Unified, Santa Ana Unified, San Francisco Unified and Oakland Unified. Others include East Side Union, Palo Alto Unified, Sonoma Valley Unified, Carlsbad Unified, Sweetwater Union, Morgan Hill Unified and Vallejo City Unified.

“Moving to A-G was the right policy. But we never really had the right resources to truly implement it,” said Steve Zimmer, Los Angeles Unified School Board president.

The Santa Ana Unified School Board in 2001 approved the plan requiring all students to complete A-G coursework starting with the graduating class of 2005. In 2001, just 16 percent of Santa Ana’s students graduated eligible to attend UC and CSU, ranking among the lowest rates of districts statewide.

Then-Superintendent Al Mijares touted the policy as a measure for equality for all students.

“We have increased the graduation requirements for the high school diploma… to make a motivational and concrete statement that is aimed at equipping our students with the skills needed to compete at the university level,” he said. “Their entrance to the (UC and CSU) is determined not by their socioeconomic or ethnic status but by the caliber of classes taken, grade-point average and SAT scores.”

In 2005, when the Los Angeles Unified School Board voted in favor of the mandatory college-prep curriculum beginning with the class of 2016, board President José Huizar said, according to the Los Angeles Times, “If we don’t give students access to A-G requirements, we are limiting their choices. I come across many, many students who in their senior year tell me ‘If only I had known, if I only I had taken the A-G requirements, I would be at a university.’”

Former state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell in his 2004 “State of Education” address proposed requiring every student in California’s public schools to complete A-G coursework in order to receive a diploma.

“This does not assume that all students are bound for college. Instead, it acknowledges that today, all of our students need the skills and knowledge contained in the curriculum that was once reserved only for the college-bound,” O’Connell said in a 2004 Sacramento Bee opinion piece.

O’Connell helped state Sen. Richard Alarcon, D-Sun Valley, sponsor a bill that year to make the initiative state law. But it failed to gain traction in the Legislature.

Challenges of college-prep curriculum

Many of the districts with the A-G required coursework pledged to hire more teachers and counselors and fund more intervention programs for struggling students to ensure a wider range of students met the higher standards. But California’s recession, which prompted state lawmakers to cut billions from public education over the past decade, halted many of these reform efforts.

In 2011, San Diego Unified delayed by two years the start of its A-G graduation requirement after officials realized the district could not afford the extra counselors and additional student support services.

Current Los Angeles Unified School Board President Steve Zimmer said his district was also unprepared to help students reach the tougher goals.

“Moving to A-G was the right policy. But we never really had the right resources to truly implement it,” Zimmer said.

The school board unanimously voted earlier this summer to change its graduation rules to allow Ds to count in A-G courses after the district determined that about half of students in the Class of 2017 were at risk of not graduating. The incoming juniors were supposed to be the first in the district and the state required to earn Cs or higher in all A-G courses, making every student with a diploma eligible for UC and CSU admission.

Zimmer said the district underestimated the amount of tutoring, after-school programs, teacher training and other infrastructure needed to help the high volume of students who were falling behind. He said state budget cuts also hampered the district’s effort to add some of these resources.

“It was troubling to see the large number of students not on the path for a diploma,” Zimmer said. “But we understood the support was not there. Our intention was not to punish students for what we failed to provide.”

Santa Ana Unified in 2009 lowered the number of credits needed to graduate from 240 to 220, then dropped Algebra II and science lab courses from its graduation requirements, ending the A-G coursework alignment. The number of UC/CSU-eligible graduates in the district had been steadily increasing every year since 2001, going from 16 percent that year to 34 percent by 2009, but the overall graduation rate remained relatively flat and continued to rank as the lowest of any district in Orange County. Officials said at the time that the move away from the A-G requirement was aimed at giving more flexibility for a growing variety of student needs, which included a higher demand for career technical training.

Edward Winchester, Santa Ana’s current director of secondary education, said Santa Ana’s graduation requirements today remain rigorous.

“They are somewhat, but not completely aligned with UC/CSU course requirements to allow for broad and maximum opportunities for all students, including those who may have college and career aspirations that don’t necessarily include UC or CSU,” Winchester said.

Jasmine Solis, who graduated from Valley High in Santa Ana this spring, will study culinary arts at Santa Ana College beginning this fall. Solis said that for her career path, completing A-G coursework was not necessary, and would have likely been a burden.

“I can’t imagine having to take all that extra math and science,” she said. “I think a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t really work for today’s students.”

San Jose Unified, Eastside Union and Oakland Unified have each included explicit clauses that allow students in 10th grade, with a parental waiver, to opt out of the A-G curriculum and choose a career technical education program.

In San Jose Unified, a 2013 report by the Los Angeles Times found that many Latino students who were struggling to pass A-G courses sidestepped the rigorous standards by transferring to the district’s alternative high schools, which were exempt from the A-G requirement. San Jose’s alternative schools enrolled nearly 50 percent more Latinos compared to traditional high schools, the Times reported.

“I don’t know that I would have ended up in college, or at least at a four-year school right away if I wasn’t put on the A-G path… It was definitely hard. But I think it helped bring the best out of me,” said Anthony Gonzales, a San Francisco Unified graduate.

David T. Conley, director of the Center for Educational Policy Research at the University of Oregon and a nationally recognized expert on college and career preparation, said districts need to find a balance between supporting those students aiming for college and those who are still figuring it out.

“In some sense moving to A-G makes sense,” he said. “But A-G only works for those kids who know they’re going to college. It’s a little unfair to only offer a purely academic course and not a vocational course.”

Conley also said districts aren’t really making students college ready when they accept Ds in A-G coursework.

“Getting a D in Spanish hardly implies that you can do anything with the language. Getting a D in algebra won’t prepare you for more challenging math,” he said.

Another criticism of having a rigid A-G curriculum is that not every college-bound graduate plans to attend a UC or CSU campus.

The Public Policy Institute of California issued a report in 2013, College Readiness as a Graduation Requirement, to measure the progress of San Diego Unified’s implementation of the A-G curriculum, which will be required starting with the graduating class of 2016.

The report found nearly 12 percent of San Diego’s high school graduates who do not meet A-G requirements still enroll in four-year private schools or in public universities outside California, which have less demanding admission standards.

“The more stringent graduation requirement might prevent some students from attending university because they would not graduate from high school,” according to the report.

Making progress with A-G

 Many educators worried that districts with a mandatory A-G curriculum would see spikes in dropout rates or lower overall graduation rates because students who struggled might just give up.

But many have actually seen steady improvements in their graduation rates and have maintained or decreased dropout rates.

Vallejo Unified has seen its graduation rate climb from 54 percent in 2011, the first year graduates were required to complete A-G coursework, to 72 percent in 2014.

San Francisco Unified, where the class of 2014 was the first required to complete A-G coursework, saw its graduation rate increase that year to 83 percent, compared to 81 percent in 2013. The dropout rate for Latino and black students increased by about 1 percentage point for each group. At the same time, the district saw a 25 percent increase in the number of Latino students graduating UC/CSU-eligible.

“We had clearly put into place support for a lot of our students who needed it,” said Bill Sanderson, San Francisco’s assistant superintendent for high schools.

The district added a slew of counselors and intervention programs. It also created multiple opportunities for students to make up credits, including online courses and Saturday school. The district funded these additional services with the help of the city of San Francisco’s Public Education Enrichment Fund, a voter-approved tax initiative that raises money annually for education and youth programs in the city.

“In San Francisco, I believe we really take access and equity of students very seriously. We want students to be successful above high school,” Sanderson said.

Anthony Gonzales graduated in 2014 from Lowell High School in San Francisco having completed all A-G coursework.

“The curriculum forced me to begin thinking about college as a freshman,” said Gonzales, who’s starting his sophomore year this fall at Sacramento State University.

“I don’t know that I would have ended up in college, or at least at a four-year school right away if I wasn’t put on the A-G path… It was definitely hard. But I think it helped bring the best out of me.”

Zimmer, the LAUSD school board president, said his district remains committed to the A-G requirement despite initial setbacks. Zimmer said he hopes the district will eventually reinstate the C or higher grade requirement for the coursework.

The Local Control Funding Formula, the state’s new system for funding school districts, will eventually allow LAUSD to divert additional funds for programs for at-risk students to help them become college-ready, he said.

“We know that every student is not going to go to college,” Zimmer said. “But it’s our responsibility to ensure those who want to go have that option.”

To get more reports like this one, click here to sign up for EdSource’s no-cost daily email on latest developments in education.

Exit mobile version