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High School Graduation during the COVID-19 Crisis

Niu Gao, Joseph Hayes April 16, 2020
photo - High School Student Studying at Home

With schools closed for in-person instruction in California through the end of the school year, the state has asked districts to implement distance learning. As a result, many students—particularly high school juniors and seniors—are concerned about falling behind or failing to graduate.

Nearly half of students from low-income families do not have broadband access at home. Given this reality, along with the uneven distribution of learning opportunities within and outside of schools across the state, it will be important to address the equity implications of the shift to distance learning during the coronavirus pandemic.

In response to school closures, the California Department of Education is allowing districts to request waivers that exempt individual students from the state’s minimum graduation requirements, which include three years of English, two years of math and two years of science.

In addition, many districts have graduation requirements that exceed the state minimum. In the 2018–19 school year, 59% of districts required a third year of math, and 22% required a third year of science.

These requirements are prevalent across all types of districts—including high-need districts, in which more than 55% of students are low-income, English Learners, homeless, or foster youth; rural districts; and districts with high student-teacher ratios.

figure - Most District Graduation Requirements Exceed the Statewide Minimum

Moreover, students in six large districts—including Los Angeles Unified, San Diego Unified, San Jose Unified, and San Francisco Unified—must complete the entire A–G sequence required for admission to University of California (UC) or California State University (CSU) schools in order to graduate.

Districts with graduation requirements that exceed the state minimum will need to work with school boards to modify local policies. UC and CSU have already responded to school closures by temporarily suspending letter grade requirements for A–G courses completed in winter, spring, and summer 2020.

However, it will be challenging to help students stay on the A–G pathway. The waiver and temporary suspension of GPA requirements do not necessarily make it easier for students to take more A-G courses. PPIC research has shown that most students exit this pathway in the last two years of high school, and groups that are historically underrepresented in higher education are more likely to drop off at every stage. As districts develop distance learning plans and ways to provide flexibility to high school students, considerations of equity and access should be front and center.

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