Lots of ‘ifs’ in adopting A-G

Districts 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).


  1. The marginal increase in completion of A-G courses can be attributed to their being required.  High expectations are good, but the important point is that remediation and intervention are not in themselves sufficient to raise performance.  What non-teachers often don’t appreciate is that students’ difficulty with the material is only one of the problems.  Much more obstructive- and utterly unaddressed- is the lack of institutional support to help replace the requisite academic behavior that is often culturally missing.  The problem manifests itself in what we call “discipline,” a term covering attentive behavior in class and a willingness to work exceptionally hard.  The institutional aversion to facing problems of discipline, which leads directly to grade inflation, social promotion and teachers left hanging in the wind and holding the bag, is what is leaving us behind other counties.  But we are afraid to discuss it, preferring solutions to the simple side-issues, solutions that cost money, something which, until now, we’ve had plenty of.  Maybe without the money we’ll wake up to the part we’ve skipped.

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  2. Will these new requirements meet the admissions requirements for other universities outside of the California system or even a public online university?

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  3. Private universities set their own standards, but it’s my understanding that most private universities, and also public universities in other states, mostly have about the same standards as A-G. The UC system’s requirements are highly influential. (I had a college admissions blog while my older child was applying to college three years ago, so this is based on the info I researched and blogged at the time.)

    For the record, I oppose syncing the A-G requirements with HS graduation requirements; I believe that high schoolers need more flexibility to help them succeed, not more rigidity. And I think it’s a mistake to claim that all students must go to college or be branded failures. It’s a moot point here, as my district, SFUSD, has implemented that requirement starting with the class of ’14, as John posted, and it’s my observation that many — perhaps most — of the advocates for that were misinformed and didn’t fully understand the situation.

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  4. Gotta love the title–”lots of ‘ifs’ in adopting A-G. Just like the gurus who are pioneering the National, oops, excuse me, Common Core Standards, with their College and Career Readiness mantra, rather than the reverse (i.e., Career coming first.), A-G requirements for high school graduation presumes that every single student is headed to some kind of college experience somewhere, somehow. Such nonsense flies in the face of current school noncompletion rates, the number of un/underemployed among even college grads, and the need, still,  for workers in a vast array of fields where no advanced college degree is needed.
    Bill Younglove

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  5. I am getting bored with this A-G fixation. Like so much of our narrowed curricular offerings, this policy discussion is largely irrelevant to the realities facing kids after they leave school.

    So, we can either continue doing more of the same with our high schools (and watch dropout rates grow beyond the current levels), or we can reconsider what we’re doing to far too many disengaged kids (including college bound — but directionless — achievers) and make secondary schools meaningful, again, for all students.

    Mandating A-G courses isn’t the answer to any question worth asking of our schools.

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  6. Sigh.  There are terrific intentions behind this movement.  I work closely with AVID and with a group studying A-G for all in our district.  But in real life, I have in my household a junior in high school with SAT scores in the 95% range, but two Ds in A-G courses. This is a kid with AP coursework in world language, lab science, english and math. Yet.
    In some ways, this effort replicates the narrow requirements and unintended consequences of NCLB.
    I’m all for high expectations and ensuring that A-G is an option for every student.  But required for high school graduation? That suit doesn’t fit every kid well at all.

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  7. SLH, that’s my kid too, and quite a few others I know. So I know firsthand that more rigidity sets more students up for failure; and more flexibility helps more to succeed. It blows me away that so few people get that — do they only know perfectly compliant kids who do everything just the way they’re supposed to?
    Warning: I’m going way off topic here, so my apologies to everyone else, but to SLH, if you don’t know this you may find it useful: For CSU admission, your kid can make up “missing courses” — D’s and I believe F’s in A-G required subjects — with high enough AP scores (3+) or SAT subject test scores (I don’t know the required level for those) in the specific subject. That’s if the student qualifies for admission in other ways, of course.
    This is also true for UC, but realistically, with D’s the kid is only likely to get into UC-Riverside or Merced. We did deploy this in my family (with a wayward child who was not about to waste time doing “busywork” homework when there was jazz to be played) and it did succeed — only for CSUs. I have an 11th-grader too and hope we won’t have to do that again, but who knows what can happen. Oh and the high school college counselors weren’t aware of this option; my son found it on his own.
    From CSUmentor:
    If you didn’t take all the required high school courses or earned D grades in some of them, you have several options to make up these courses and qualify for CSU admission. You can complete appropriate high school courses with a grade of C or better either in summer school or in adult school. Courses in this category must be those found on the high school or adult school UC “a-g” course lists. Some adult schools may not have a-g course lists.
    You may also complete college courses with a grade of C or better in the missing subject areas. Finally, you can earn an acceptable score on examinations such as the SAT subject examinations, Advanced Placement examinations, or International Baccalaureate examinations.

    Scroll to “How to Make Up Missing Courses.”

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  8. I agree with the many commentators on this post (Doug, Ed, Caroline, Bill, Fred, SLH). At our proposed school we regard the A-G requirements as too weak to produce competitive graduates who are genuinely well prepared for higher education; yet we recognize that many students (such as the ones Bill mentions and Caroline defends) have other plans and should be using the last years of high school in ways other than the choice of preparing for institutions they will not be attending or dropping out and preparing for a life of crime. Pierre Bourdieu (or more accurately his translator) uses the term “self-exclusion”, which I prefer to “drop out”: each of these students more or less consciously decides that this place (school) has nothing worth the trouble of attending, and being on the streets or in immediate low wage employment is preferable; they exclude themselves from the system we are so devoted to improving. Given that apparently half of the students in San Jose are not graduating, it’s hard to defend this one-size-fits-all policy as a success that other districts should copy.

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  9. Good lord, that report is unmitigated, er, nonsense. Could reporters start demanding that any boasts about the Hispanic AP pass rate be mitigated with admissions as to how many of those scores were in AP Spanish?
    Several of the district’s high schools and middle schools are in program improvement because of the achievement gap in algebra–caused by our forcing students to take algebra in 8th, and then 9th, and then 10th, and then, heaven help us, 11th grade until they finally pass when a teacher takes pity on them. Standards aren’t being lowered? That’s nonsense. Check out algebra at one of the higher performing schools and then one of the lower. It’s incredibly difficult to teach high standards to the 10% of the class able to take it, when another 20% can’t even understand negatives or combining like terms, and the muddled middle have the ability and incentive to pass a basic, but not demanding, course.
    Really, almost every assertion in that article is a baldfaced distortion or lie.
    The mandated A-G requirements are an outcome of the push for a constrained academic curriculum. It’s misguided, but worse, it puts a great deal of power in the hands of the students. Schools can’t expel misbehaving kids, particularly if the expulsions aren’t racially proportional. Failure rates, too, are scrutinized carefully for “equity”. The low-achieving low-incentive students know that they don’t have to do much, because eventually they’ll pass if they just hang out–and why shouldn’t they? School is a big part of their social life. Of course, that’s all they do, is socialize.
    I honestly don’t know what the answer is, since if we let these students drop out, they’d just become criminals sooner rather than later–and later, they’d be more mature and many of them would make better choices. But what we are doing now *is* criminal. We are committing fraud in the name of equity, wasting taxpayers’ money, and not giving these students the education they’re capable of understanding.

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  10. I am all for the idea of higher standards, but I also think that there are many very rigorous and valuable and rewarding careers that don’t require the A-G style courses. And, I think anyone who honestly spends time with the full range of kids in California schools knows that there will always be some students who are unable or unwilling to do the work to pass those classes as they are intended to be presented.
    Making it a requirement for every student who lives in a certain district is as sensible as requiring that every student run a marathon in less than 5 1/2 hours. For some, it will make a key difference in their lives. For many, they’ll manage somehow and hate running forever. For others, it will mean they never graduate.
    So the question is: what path will the district offer for kids who are unable or unwilling to meet A-G? Will they just become dropouts? Will there be other schools available to them with Career Education options?

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  11. Ensuring that all students have access to a rigorous curriculum is an important challenge that districts face. As these districts implement an A-G for all policy, it will be important to keep a close eye on it to ensure that the challenge of the courses are not watered down to be A-G in name only. Just last week, Sam Dillon highlighted a related issue in the NY Times about course title inflation documented in a recent AIR report.  (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/26/education/26inflate.html?ref=samdillon). Parents are happier if their students are taking courses that have rigorous titles, but if the course content does not match the course title, then these reforms can be seen as disingenuous.
    An example of this from a recent visit I made to a high school in LA. The school had recently converted to a block schedule that allowed the students to take 8 courses a year instead of 6 – four block scheduled course per semester. Since the overall instructional time did not increase (it actually went down for budget reasons, but that is another story), students were only  receiving 75 percent as much time in each course. Not surprisingly, the school was able to increase both its graduation rate, and the percentage of students taking A-G course. I followed up with UC office of the President to investigate, how can a course have its instructional time reduced so significantly, and still be an A-G course? While no official response was ever available, UC staff basically let me know that it comes down to UC trusting the high schools that the course content  that they describe when their course syllabi is accurate and all the material is covered. Conversations with staff made it blatantly clear much less material was being covered.

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