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Press Release · April 24, 2013

College Prep for All? New High School Graduation Standards Set High Bar

Evidence from San Diego Shows that Many Students WillI Need Support

SAN FRANCISCO, April 24, 2013—As four large California school districts—Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, and Oakland—implement ambitious new graduation standards designed to increase college readiness, evidence from San Diego suggests that they will need to undertake major interventions to ensure that students succeed. Otherwise the very students these reforms aim to help could be denied high school diplomas, according to a report released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).

The report looks at the potential effect of the new graduation policy in the San Diego Unified School District—the state’s second-largest. Starting in 2016, SDUSD students will have to complete the coursework required for admission to the University of California (UC) or the California State University (CSU) system—known as the a–g sequence—to obtain high school diplomas. The findings from San Diego should be useful to the other districts that are implementing the standard over the next few years, because they have similar percentages of graduates who currently meet UC/CSU eligibility requirements.

The districts adopted the new standards in response to concerns that students in major urban school districts lack equal access to the a–g courses required to enter the state’s public four-year universities. The a–g course sequence, which consists of 30 semesters of college preparatory work in seven subject areas, is considerably more rigorous than the minimum graduation requirement set by the state.

Perhaps in recognition of its difficulty, districts have modified the college readiness requirement. UC and CSU require that students complete all a–g courses with grades of C or higher to be eligible for admission. But San Diego, San Francisco, and Oakland will allow grades of D or higher. The Los Angeles Unified School District also plans to begin with this standard, but after 2016, the first year of implementation, it will require grades of C or higher.

Focusing on San Diego’s class of 2011, the PPIC report assesses the challenges in the transition to the new graduation standard for the class of 2016. It finds that 61.1 percent of graduates would have met the standard of grade D or higher. In other words, 39 percent of students who received diplomas in 2011 would have failed to graduate under the new standard. Had they been required to earn grades of C or higher in each of these courses, only 41.8 percent would have graduated.

The subject areas that presented the biggest barriers were math, English, and foreign language. English Learner, Latino, African American, male, and special education students—as well as those whose parents had high school diplomas or less—were much less likely to complete the a–g courses. Among the students who did not complete the requirement with grades of D or higher, about four out of five did not take all of the required courses, while one out of five took all of the required courses but failed one or more of them.

The report’s authors say the new graduation standards provide a bold and egalitarian vision, but they caution that raising the bar so high creates the risk of a sizable drop in the graduation rate.

“San Diego students will need to dramatically change the courses they take,” says report coauthor Julian Betts, a Bren fellow and adjunct fellow at PPIC, as well as a professor at the University of California, San Diego. “Clear communication with students, parents, and teachers about the new requirements is critical—and that communication needs to begin in middle school, if not earlier.”

In conjunction with the report, Betts and his coauthors developed the a–g On Track Model, a tool that can forecast which students in grade 6 or grade 7 will have the most difficulty fulfilling the new requirements.

The report notes aspects of the new graduation standard that merit more study. San Jose—which adopted an a–g requirement in 2002—and Oakland each have an explicit opt-out process. Other districts may need to follow suit because the state education code requires alternative pathways to a high school diploma. If opt-outs become widespread, the very students that the policy was designed to support may have little incentive to enroll in college preparatory courses.

The report cautions that the findings do not necessarily mean that San Diego’s graduation rates will plummet when the new standard takes effect, because students and their teachers have time to react to it. But San Diego, and probably its counterparts, will need to undertake major interventions to ensure that all students can graduate from high school. A key step districts should take is to identify students—at an early age—who are unlikely to succeed and work with them intensively.

The Donald Bren Foundation supported the report, titled College Readiness as a Graduation Requirement: An Assessment of San Diego’s Challenges. Betts’ coauthors are Andrew Zau, senior statistician for the San Diego Education Research Alliance at UCSD, and Karen Volz Bachofer, director of the alliance.


PPIC is dedicated to informing and improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research on major economic, social, and political issues. The institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett. As a private operating foundation, PPIC does not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor does it endorse, support, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office.