Lots of ‘ifs’ in adopting A-GDistricts must make commitment to students
Five large urban school districts*** have joined San Jose Unified in adopting the course requirements for admission to California’s four-year universities as their high school graduation requirements, and plan to impose them within the next five years. A report by public policy seniors at Stanford University concluded that other districts also should consider doing so – but “if and only if they have the means to implement the policy properly.”
With heavy budget cuts on the books and more looming, that will be increasingly difficult to do. Last month, the school board of one of the five districts, San Diego Unified, voted to push back the start of the new graduation requirement two years because of the expense involved in hiring more counselors, helping students struggling with higher standards, and adding academically demanding career technical programs at a time when existing career academies are under financial strain. The new graduation requirement will first affect this year’s seventh graders, the Class of 2016, according to Sid Salazar, assistant superintendent of the the state’s second largest district.
Previous TOP-Ed posts (here and here) have debated the wisdom of adopting a universal college prep high school curriculum, which in California is 15 courses that the California State University and University of California require all entering students to have completed with at least a grade of C in each. Known as A-G, it includes four years of English, three years of math, two years of lab science, two years of history, two years of a foreign language, a year of visual or performing arts and a year of electives.
What the report “Raising the Bar” makes clear is that data in California for and against the policy arguments is spotty. In part, that’s because San Jose Unified remains the only urban district to have adopted A-G, staring with the Class of 2002. Comparisons are limited.
San Jose Unified reports that its dropout rate has not fallen, while its A-G completion rate has risen from about 30 percent in 1998 to 47 percent of the class of 2008, compared with the statewide rate of 35 percent. The percentage of Latinos in the district satisfying the A-G requirements was 29 percent, compared with 22 percent statewide. The percentage of students deemed college ready in math, under the Early Assessment Program that juniors take, was about 8 percentage points higher than the state average, but, at 23 percent, still very low. A majority of students at CSU campuses must take remedial courses to catch up.
Dropout rates in California have been inaccurate (they soon will become accurate, however, as a result of four years of data using student identifiers); A-G course completion rates are self-reported by districts and, according to the UC system, very unreliable. Limited data notwithstanding, San Jose Unified argues that raising standards and expectations through A-G adoption has been a success. To an extent, that is true.
But the 50 percent of students in the district still not satisfying A-G admission requirements, primarily because they received Ds or Fs (48 percent in math alone, according to an Education Trust-West study) raises two questions: Can districts adopt more and earlier interventions for struggling students? Should there be other options than A-G for students who decide, by the time they’re juniors, that they may want to pursue job training or an associate’s degree or vocational certificate after high school?
San Diego Unified views career and college preparation as linked. The intent, Salazar says, is to require all high school students to take some career courses, whether culinary arts, pre-engineering or medical technology, exposing all students to technical skills and vocations. Seeing that all of the courses meet A-G requirements will be a challenge; adding a career component will be another expense, which is why the trustees put off formal adoption for now.
East Side Union High School District in San Jose has adopted an opt-out policy for the inaugural Class of 2015, which will permit exemptions by students and families from A-G. In the Stanford report, educators disagreed as to whether that will end up being a high or low number. That will likely depend on how well students are prepared for higher level work when they arrive in ninth grade.
The Silicon Valley Education Foundation (my employer) pushed East Side Union trustees to adopt A-G and is now helping the district prepare for it. It is starting Stepping Up To Science, a summer program preparing incoming ninth graders for biology; many otherwise would be assigned a non-A-G lab science. It is sponsoring a massive summer school program to prepare eighth graders in San Jose for algebra, the gateway course for college. And it is working with the elementary feeder districts to East Side Union to establish common student placement criteria for Algebra – something that’s been talked about for years.
Foundations, with corporate help, can fund summer bridge classes and provide other vital help, especially now, but districts must create a college-going culture, educate parents on A-G, hire counselors, establish high school programs like AVID, train teachers and ensure there enough classes in A-G courses. San Diego Unified has estimated the cost during the first four years of implementing A-G at $16 million, according to the report; the district is facing $120 million in cuts this year.
It is cruel to children – dooming many to failure and frustration – to raise standards and add courses without the method and means to support them. The onus lies not only on districts but on legislators who decide how much to fund them.
(The authors of the report are Josh Freedman Max Friedmann, Cameron Poter and Anna Schuessler, all students in the Program in Public Policy program. Mary Sprague, senior lecturer, oversaw their work. Staff at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation also provided guidance to the students. For an executive summary of the report, click here. Go to the bottom of this page for a link to the full study.)
*** The five, with the dates affecting graduating seniors, are San Diego Unified (2016), East Side Union (2015), Oakland Unified (2015), San Francisco Unified (2014) and Los Angeles Unified (2012).