As California teachers and students open the new school year, they’re feeling proud of a recent trend toward decreased dropouts and increased graduation rates.
But several of the state’s largest urban districts are about to embark on new course requirements that risk major reductions in those rates.
In response to complaints that college prep courses are sometimes unavailable to minority students, the big districts have adopted new rules forcing almost all students who want to graduate in 2016 and afterward to take such classes, even if they don’t plan to attend a four-year school or even a community college.
The ambitious new requirements will require high school students in the Oakland, San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco districts to complete coursework needed for eligibility to attend the University of California and the California State University system. This plan has been used in San Jose since 2002, with opt-out provisions for some students. Oakland also has an opt-out.
Opt-outs can be important because state law requires districts to let anyone who has completed grade 10 to choose between a traditional college prep curriculum or one that’s more career oriented. So the new plans in the big districts include provisions for things like “course substitutions,” but no one knows just how they will work or who will use them.
Almost all graduates will have to take three years of math, four years of English, two years of social studies including U.S. history, two years of science with at least one lab class, two years of a foreign language, one year of arts education and one year of an academic elective. This plan is known as the “a-g sequence.”
That course load is stricter than current state-mandated minimums for graduation, which include three years of English, two of math and one year of a foreign language, in addition to two years of physical education.
Making this a little less onerous for those not particularly inclined toward academics, all the districts involved start by saying grades of D or above will do in any course, with Los Angeles to require C grades starting in 2017. A C is the minimum for any class to count toward eligibility for the two big state university systems.
A study by the Public Policy Institute of California concluded that the majority of the state’s high school graduates do not now complete the soon-to-be mandatory sequence with a C or higher. In 2011, only 40.3 percent of graduates managed it, including 44 percent of females and 36 percent of males.
Those numbers alone indicate that graduation rates will drop unless school systems get heavily involved as early as junior high in identifying and intensely working with students likely to have problems managing academic courses.
Because African American and Hispanic students now have low completion rates of “a-g” coursework, they will be most at risk of not graduating. Allowing D work to count will help them, though, as the PPIC study shows about twice as many Latino students in recent years have passed the sequence with at least one D as have done it with only C’s or better. But more than one-fourth of white and Asian students also did not get through the sequence with nothing below a C.
The PPIC study focused hardest on San Diego, finding that only 61.1 percent of that district’s 2011 graduates finished the sequence even with a D average. How many wouldn’t graduate starting in 2016 depends on how many courses in the sequence they fail and what opportunities they get to better their grades.
The dangers of all this are clear:
• It could lead to de-emphasis of vocational and career education choices.
• It could harm some students planning to attend private or out-of-state colleges whose requirements don’t match those of the big California systems. In San Diego, fully 12 percent of graduates fit into this category and still enrolled at four-year colleges.
• And unless school districts display flexibility, it could raise the dropout rate considerably.
But there is also a strong upside: High school graduates should emerge with a wider education than many now do. Combined with the state’s exit exam, that could make high school diplomas mean far more than they usually have.
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