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College Readiness in California: A Look at Rigorous High School Course-Taking

By Niu Gao

Recognizing the educational and economic benefits of a college degree, education policymakers at the federal, state, and local levels have made college preparation a priority. There are many ways to measure college readiness, but one key component is rigorous high school coursework. California has not yet adopted a statewide college readiness requirement, but a growing number of school districts—including Los Angeles Unified, San Jose Unified, Oakland Unified, San Diego Unified, and San Francisco Unified—now require students to complete the rigorous coursework, called the "a–g courses,” that are necessary for admission to the University of California (UC) and the California State University (CSU) system.

In this report we look at participation and performance in rigorous high school courses among California high school students, both overall and across demographic and racial/ethnic groups. While enrollment in rigorous courses has been increasing, particularly among students who are traditionally underrepresented in higher education, a large majority of California high school students are not taking the courses that can prepare them for college. Forty-three percent of high school graduates in 2015 completed the a–g requirement, and 27 percent of high school graduates in 2013 passed an advanced placement (AP) exam. Participation in advanced math, biology, chemistry, and physics courses is also low. In particular, only 30 percent of high school juniors and seniors enrolled in Algebra II and smaller shares enrolled in chemistry (28%) and physics (10%).

As they monitor the progress of public high schools in preparing students for college, state policymakers and districts need to focus on indicators such as a–g completion, benchmark course-taking, and end-of-course exam (EOC) results. We also recommend tracking performance across student groups to help schools and districts address gaps in achievement and provide educational resources to students who need them most.


Upgrading Technology Infrastructure in California’s Schools

By Patrick Murphy, Niu Gao

As California schools move into online testing and online learning, an adequate technology infrastructure is no longer an option, but a necessity. To fully benefit from digital learning, schools will require a comprehensive technology infrastructure that can support a range of administrative and instructional tools. An earlier PPIC report found that most schools need significant technology upgrades in order to accommodate online learning. What upgrades do schools need most, and how much will they cost? How can policymakers help ensure that all students have access to 21st-century learning tools?

This report describes findings based on new statewide data. First, schools need high-density wireless networks, increased bandwidth, and overall network infrastructure upgrades. The challenges are greater in large schools, mostly because of the high cost of wireless networks for large groups of users. Second, IT staffing continues to be an issue in most schools. Only a third of schools have staff onsite to support desktop and local network configuration.

To estimate the costs of upgrading technology infrastructure, we created two scenarios. Our baseline scenario—which includes minimum bandwidth for digital learning, one device for every two middle- and high-school students, and one IT staffer for every 300 computing devices—would cost an additional $1.5 billion over the next three years. Our target scenario—which involves additional bandwidth and one device to every middle- and high-school student—would cost significantly more: $3.8 billion. In either scenario, staffing costs are more than 60 percent of the total.

As the state explores ways to address these ongoing technology needs, we offer several recommendations. First, continue and maintain sustained funding for technology investment, particularly for staffing. Second, provide targeted technical assistance to address severe staffing problems. Third, to ensure that all students have full access to digital learning, take advantage of federal funding and explore innovative partnerships with private sector to cover the cost of home broadband access for students from lower-income families.


Are California’s Schools Ready for Online Testing and Learning?

By Niu Gao

In addition to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), California is implementing a new, online assessment system: the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP). Field tests were conducted last spring and the system is being rolled out this year, amid concerns about whether schools are technologically prepared. Using survey data from the California Educational Technology Professionals Association (CETPA), this report examines school districts’ technology infrastructure and assesses their readiness for online testing. Three findings emerge. First, school districts express confidence in the quantity and quality of their hardware and network capabilities but remain concerned about software and training of instructional and IT staff. Second, there is sizable variation in readiness across districts, linked mainly to student enrollment and district expenditure levels. Third, a clear majority of the state’s onetime CCSS Implementation Fund is going into non-technology spending such as instructional materials and teacher training. Regardless of their current readiness, districts will need targeted and ongoing support to upgrade and maintain their technology infrastructure. In the longer term, virtually all schools will need to upgrade their technology infrastructure in order to adopt and benefit from digital learning.

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Testimony: Low-Income Students and Financial Aid

By Kevin Cook

As the legislature considers a number of bills aimed at increasing access and affordability of public higher education, the state assembly’s subcommittee on education finance invited PPIC to testify this week.


Low-Income Students and School Meal Programs in California

By Caroline Danielson

School nutrition programs help improve nutrition among vulnerable children. In so doing, they help build a better future for these children and the state. Now that California is implementing the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), there is additional reason to make sure all students who are eligible for free or low-cost meals enroll in these programs. Along with English Learners and foster youth, low-income students—in other words, students who are eligible for free and reduced-price meals—are targeted for additional funds under the LCFF. This renewed focus on enrollment could also prompt further consideration of participation in school nutrition programs.

This report looks at factors that might be linked to variations in student enrollment and participation in free or reduced-price meals. Not surprisingly, we find that districts with higher poverty rates identify higher levels of eligibility than wealthier districts. Low-income high school students appear to be enrolled at levels comparable to younger students, but students in elementary school districts are much more likely to participate in lunch programs than students in other types of districts. We also find that schools in districts with higher shares of foreign-born residents have modestly lower participation levels (but not identification of low-income students). Finally, we find evidence that schools with smaller enrollments are more successful than larger schools at identifying and serving low-income students.

One way to further the goal of full enrollment among low-income students is to cut the large share of low-income students who must submit applications for free or reduced-price meals. Achieving this objective is arguably an important part of a larger state effort to integrate social safety net programs and services.


Implementing California’s School Funding Formula: Will High-Need Students Benefit?

By Laura Hill, Iwunze Ugo

The Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) reformed California’s K–12 school finance system. It replaced a patchwork of formulas and specific (or "categorical”) programs with a focus on local control, funding equity, and additional support for the large share of students (63%) who are "high needs"—that is, low-income, English Learner, and/or foster care youth. However, there are still concerns about whether the new funding will reach high-need students. Because districts have spending flexibility, and because some of the extra funding for high-need students is based on their districtwide enrollment levels, it is possible that high-need schools in districts with relatively low overall shares of high-need students will not get the funding they need. Our research indicates that county offices of education—which are charged with assisting districts in developing and achieving accountability plans—may have extra work to do in parts of Southern California, the Bay Area, and Sacramento to ensure that extra state funding improves outcomes of high-need students who are not evenly distributed across district schools.


Implementing Local Accountability in California’s Schools: The First Year of Planning

By Paul Warren, Giselle Carrillo

The passage of the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) in 2013 gave California school districts flexibility in allocating resources and significantly boosted state support for the education of disadvantaged students. LCFF also includes a Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP), which requires districts to enlist the help of parents and the public in identifying student performance goals and ways to achieve them. Our research in 25 California districts suggests that educators have worked hard to develop the first of these three-year plans, but that knowledge about strategic planning, data-driven decisionmaking, and involving parents and the public in the process varies significantly among districts. As a consequence, the clarity and effectiveness of the initial plans varies widely. The state can help by making technical assistance to districts and county offices of education available and affordable. Our research also indicates that expanding the role of county offices would help them push for improved student performance.

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Video: Making College Possible

By Linda Strean

At a time when California’s economy needs more college graduates, a new PPIC report examines the role of grants and scholarships in making higher education both accessible and helping students graduate.

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