California has not updated its math graduation requirements for 30 years and now lags behind other states in ensuring that high school graduates are ready for success in college and the workplace. Math graduation requirements can affect students’ participation in advanced math courses (e.g., algebra II), which in turn has an impact on their educational and economic outcomes over the long term.
Across the nation, California is one of three states that require only two years of math instruction for high school graduation. Other states typically require three years (27 states and the District of Columbia) or four years (17 states). From 2001 to 2016, 25 states made their graduation requirements more rigorous. In recent years, some states have even incorporated college- and career-readiness components, such as SAT or ACT scores, into their graduation standards. In contrast, California last updated its graduation requirements in 1986.
In the absence of changes at the state level, California’s public school districts and four-year institutions have taken the lead. Most of the state’s districts have independently updated their math graduation standards. During the 2015–16 school year, 63% of unified and high school districts supplemented the state minimum with an additional year of math, although larger districts with more than 20,000 students were somewhat less likely to do so. Moreover, both the California State University and University of California systems require three years of math, including algebra I, geometry, and algebra II (or equivalent).
For many students, taking only two years of math will not adequately prepare them for college and beyond. It’s time for California to update its graduation requirements to better align with district practices and other major statewide efforts to improve college readiness. Increasing the amount of math instruction required for high school graduation can encourage more students to take advanced math courses—which would increase their likelihood of graduating from high school and enrolling in college. It would also reduce the need for remedial education in college.
One concern is that more rigorous math requirements may prevent students from graduating high school. However, evidence from California districts and other states suggests that there is no correlation between high school graduation requirements and high school graduation rates.
Another concern is cost, as the state needs to fund any changes to graduation requirements (e.g., the cost of hiring more math teachers and offering more math courses). However, most districts already require three years of math, suggesting that funding may not be a big constraint. If the state sets higher minimum math requirements, the educational and economic benefits for California students will likely to outweigh the costs.