The University of California (UC) requires high school students to complete a series of college preparatory courses across a broad range of subjects, referred to as the A-G subjects, to be eligible for admission. In February 2018, UC’s Academic Senate approved a proposal to increase the high school science admissions eligibility requirement-known as area D-from two years to three. The proposal would bring its admissions eligibility in line with the new K-12 Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and allow additional science courses to meet the expanded requirement, reflecting the broader range of science disciplines included in NGSS.
If adopted, UC’s new policy could improve student science learning and readiness for college. But a critical concern is how the proposed science requirements may affect student eligibility for UC, particularly among underrepresented and disadvantaged student groups. California already ranks near the bottom in high school to four-year college enrollment, and more than three-fourths of Californians are concerned about access to four-year colleges.
In this report, we examine the proposal’s potential impact. Based on our analysis of a sample of high school graduates who completed the A-G requirements during the 2017-18 school year, we find that:
- The overwhelming majority of A-G graduates have completed at least three years of area D. But 19 percent completed only two years and may be affected by the new proposal.
- There are substantial racial/ethnic disparities: Asian American and white students are more likely to meet the new requirements than Latino or African American students.
- Half of the affected students were not enrolled in an area D course in grade 9. Instead, most took a science elective that does not count toward area D completion. Earth science, which did not meet area D requirements until the 2019-20 school year, accounts for half of all science electives.
- Although students who may be affected have a high probability of taking another year of area D, many do not do so partly because of institutional factors such as course placement, grading policy, course validation rules, course counseling, and scheduling.
- Expanding science offerings may pose hiring difficulties for schools, particularly those with more disadvantaged students. Many have at least one science course with an inappropriately certified teacher.
In light of our findings, we make the following recommendations:
At the University of California:
- Move all science electives into area D. This could reduce the number of potentially affected students by nearly half, and especially benefit Latino and African American students.
- Adopt a phase-in period to allow high schools time to adjust course schedules and offerings. The equity implications-including how many and which high schools have submitted their science electives to area D’should be closely monitored and sufficiently addressed before finalizing these changes.
- Engage in vigorous statewide outreach, so students, parents, counselors, and teachers are well informed about the change (before ninth grade). Effective communication about the benefits of a third year of science, particularly for students not interested in STEM majors, will be critical.
At high schools:
- Submit all eligible science electives for inclusion in area D as UC expands its list. This would make it easier for students to meet the new requirements.
- Review and revise course placement and counseling policies to ensure that academically prepared students enroll in area D courses.
For state policymakers:
- Allow science teachers to teach computer science courses-which, effective 2019, may count toward area D.
- Increase the efforts to prepare, recruit, and retain science teachers, particularly in high-need schools.
The full effects of the proposed change, if approved, depend crucially on implementation. If implemented correctly, the new requirement could improve the way science courses are taken in California high schools and help level the playing field for underrepresented students in gaining admission to highly selective universities. However, careful and continuous attention to the equity implications are necessary to ensure that the policy does not have a disproportionate impact on the state’s most disadvantaged students.