Major urban school districts-including those in Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and Oakland-have recently changed their high school graduation requirements, making college preparatory coursework mandatory. These districts now require students to complete the a-g sequence, 30 semester-long courses in assigned subjects required for admission to the University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU) systems. This bold reform seeks to equalize access to college prep coursework, thus making college more possible for historically underserved students. But it also risks denying a high school diploma to many of the very students it is designed to help.
This report examines the benefits and potential pitfalls of the reform-as experienced in San Diego, San Francisco, and Los Angeles-with primary focus on the San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD). SDUSD is the second largest district in California. There, students in the class of 2016 will be the first required to complete the college prep coursework to obtain a diploma. While both public university systems in California require students to obtain grades of C or higher in these courses, SDUSD will allow those with grades of D or higher to graduate.
Comparing San Diego’s classes of 2016 through 2018 with classes that have already graduated, the report finds that students facing the new requirement have increased their a-g course-taking. By the end of grade 11, students in the class of 2016 had completed about 1.0 semester courses more than predicted by past trends. On a very positive note, students with the lowest likelihood of completing the requirement have shown the greatest improvement.
It also appears that the percentage of students in the class of 2016 who will complete the coursework with grades of C or higher- which would make them eligible to apply to the two state public university systems-may rise up to 10 percentage points. These students could gain meaningfully from the reform.
In spite of that good news, and despite supports such as expanded summer school offerings, many students in the class of 2016 are at risk of not graduating in June. We estimate up to 27 percent will have trouble completing their required a-g courses by then; over half of English Learners and those receiving special education services are unlikely to do so. Factoring in SDUSD’s longtime graduation requirement of a 2.0 cumulative GPA raises that estimate slightly from 27 to 28 percent. The overall projected June graduation rate of 72 percent would be far below June 2014-s 87.5 percent.
In sum, roughly 10 percent more San Diego students may become eligible to apply to the CSU and UC university systems, but 16 percent more may fail to graduate. For the class of 2016, the new graduation policy is likely to produce many students who will win, and many who will lose. The district has implemented online credit recovery classes in 2015-16, and in addition has exempted students from UC’s two-year world language requirement if they can pass a written and oral exam. The intervention and a-g exemption could yet boost graduation rates closer to their historical level.
Separately, we note an unresolved question about how to institute a policy of college prep for all while accommodating stipulations in the state education code that allows students in good academic standing to take an alternative route to a high school diploma, such as one that places greater emphasis on Career and Technical Education (CTE).
How could the “college prep for all” policy be adjusted to become a win-win for both higher- and lower-achieving students? What lessons can districts considering its adoption derive from the preliminary experiences of LAUSD, SFUSD, and SDUSD? We offer three suggestions that could help districts ensure their new graduation requirement plans thrive in the long run. First, districts can increase on-time course completion by identifying at-risk students and providing supports for them not only in high school but as far back as the elementary grades, along with more opportunities to take relevant courses. SDUSD’s expansion of language course offerings in middle school and summer school for high school students represent steps in that direction. Second, districts ideally will ensure adequate funding to provide these added supports and services. Third, districts should consider how to reconcile college prep for all with certain stipulations in the state education code, including a career and technical education pathway to a high school diploma.