Need to rethink tying high-school diploma to college course requirements

July 1, 2018

The new mantra for high schools is college and career readiness.

Russell Rumberger

The response from many school districts across the state is to require all high school graduates to meet a single measure of college readiness based on the eligibility requirements for the California State University.

Meanwhile, California’s new accountability system now includes five alternative ways of measuring college and career readiness based on combinations of test scores, course completions and grades. These mixed responses not only will fail to ensure that California students are prepared for college and careers; they may deny diplomas to otherwise prepared students.

The requirements for a public high school diploma in California depend on where you attend school. The California Education Code sets a minimum state requirement of 13 year-long courses, but allows school districts to impose their own graduation requirements. Most districts require an average of 20 to 24 courses between the 9th and 12th grades. In addition, more than half of school districts across the state now require high school graduates to meet the eligibility requirements of the California State University (CSU) system, which is a set of 15 courses in seven subject areas (known as a-g courses) with a grade C or better.

However well intentioned, this response is problematic.

Requiring students to meet the eligibility requirements of a four-year college does not ensure that students are prepared for college. More than a third of all freshmen enrolled in the CSU system are now required to take remedial classes. These students, despite meeting eligibility requirements, are clearly not college ready. In fact, research finds that students need a high school grade point average (GPA) of at least a 2.5 to be successful in college.

Some districts have actually lowered rather than raised the GPA requirement in order to get more students to graduate. The Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, adopted the a-g course requirement beginning with the class of 2016, but lowered the required GPA to 1.0. Getting a “D” reflects very little learning or preparation for college.

Also, why should all students have to meet the eligibility requirements for admission to a four-year college if they don’t want a job that requires that much schooling? According to projections by the Public Policy Institute, less than 40 percent of the jobs in California in 2030 will require a four-year college degree. If students can demonstrate readiness for a trade or community college program, shouldn’t they be granted a high school diploma? After all, some of these middle level jobs pay better than jobs held by 4-year college graduates.

The state’s response to college and career readiness adds further confusion.

Of the five alternative measures of college and career readiness in California’s new accountability system, only one is based on graduates meeting the CSU eligibility requirements. Other measures are based on different requirements, such a completing a sequence of career and technical education courses that can prepare students for technical occupations or taking dual enrollment (high school/community college) courses. So a school could report students as college and career ready in the state accountability system based on one or more of these five measures, but deny some of those very same students a diploma because they did not meet the one measure that their district requires for graduation — completion of the coursework needed for admission to CSU.

How do we explain this confusing state of affairs to students and parents?

If districts want more students to be college and career ready, they should embrace multiple measures that capture a broader array of skills and knowledge, and multiple pathways to achieve them. These include career and technical education courses that not only develop technical skills, but also communication, collaboration and other so called “social-emotional” skills that research has shown are highly predictive of success in both college and the labor market. Just as the state has developed multiple indicators of college and career readiness, districts could provide multiple pathways to earn a diploma that meets state standards — something other states have embraced.

Another option is for each student to have a post-graduation plan showing evidence of their commitment and preparation to college, trade program, work or military service. The Chicago Public Schools have adopted this requirement beginning with the class of 2020.

To truly serve and prepare all students for success in college, careers and civic life, districts should adopt a broader measure of student success in setting their graduation requirements. To ensure equity, they could initially assign all students to the a-g option as a graduation requirement beginning in the freshman year, but allow them to opt out of that requirement and select another option to demonstrate college and career readiness (such as a career pathway) in conjunction with a documented post-graduation plan.

The consequences for students and the welfare of the state are dire if we don’t get this right.


Russell W. Rumberger is Professor Emeritus at the Gevirtz School of Education at UC Santa Barbara and Director of the California Dropout Research Project.

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