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Exclusive: Less Than 25% of L.A. Public School Seniors Last Year Took the Type of Elective Class California State University Wants to Make a Requirement

By Taylor Swaak | November 18, 2019

Hamilton High School / Instagram

As the country’s largest four-year public university considers adding a fourth-year math/quantitative reasoning requirement to its admissions standards, new data obtained by The 74 show that less than a quarter of L.A. Unified seniors last year took such a class.

About 23.5 percent of seniors — or 8,472 of 36,124 — were enrolled in a fourth-year math/quantitative reasoning course during the 2018-19 school year, according to the district’s Office of General Counsel. The California State University system, which spans 23 campuses and serves some 481,000 students, will decide in the coming weeks whether to tack on this type of elective class to its admissions requirements for prospective freshmen, starting in fall 2027 when current fifth-graders enter college.

That more than 75 percent of seniors in the state’s largest school district were not enrolled in what could become a required CSU admissions course elicited serious concerns from advocates already worried about college access and readiness among L.A. Unified graduates, less than half of whom were on track to be eligible for CSU admissions last year under the current standards.

This should be “raising alarm bells for everyone,” said Elisha Smith Arrillaga, executive director of Education Trust-West. “We need to have a serious conversation as a state about who has access to college and who doesn’t.”

Data also revealed that of the 35 math/quantitative reasoning courses L.A. Unified counted in 2018-19, all were math, with at least 80 percent listed as precalculus or calculus. This, advocates added, underscores the likely hurdles districts will face offering additional courses to all of their students — especially classes other than math. CSU in its proposal touts the possibility of students taking quantitative reasoning courses, such as statistics, computer science or personal finance, to fulfill the requirement.

These findings speak to the necessity of having data-driven policy, said Michele Siqueiros, president of the Campaign for College Opportunity. CSU’s proposal, which purports that the “majority of California students already meet the proposed requirement,” leans on data limited to students who applied to the Cal State system or who are already currently enrolled. This, advocates argue, discounts students who want a college education but who are already struggling to meet the bar for admissions.

“Why do we have to rely just on CSU data and public records requests to get this kind of information?” Siqueiros asked in response to The 74’s findings. “That is no good way to make very significant policy changes or admissions changes to the CSU.”

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James T. Minor, CSU’s assistant vice chancellor and senior strategist who presented the official proposal to trustees, said he “would find it difficult to believe” that L.A. Unified students don’t have access to courses beyond math that would satisfy the prospective requirement.

Under the proposal, he noted, students could also complete certain CSU-approved science or Career and Technical Education courses, or enroll in a qualifying class at a local community college. There would also be an automatic waiver for students at under-resourced schools that still don’t offer permissible courses by the 2027 rollout, though a formal provision and parameters haven’t been fleshed out yet.

Minor added that he disagrees with advocates tying CSU’s proposal to the systemic college readiness challenges statewide and in districts like L.A. The proposal’s focus, he said, is mainly on students already prepped to attend CSU, and whether it’s reasonable to ask those students to take an additional course to boost their preparedness.

If “nothing changed, LAUSD would still have the same circumstance — that a very high percentage of their students would not be meeting [the] requirements,” he said. “Is that a major challenge for public education in the state of California? Absolutely. Should we be working on that challenge? Absolutely. But it’s beyond the scope of this proposal.”

Still, CSU officials reason that the additional admissions requirement would promote equity, in part by expanding marginalized students’ access to more rigorous pre-college coursework and opportunities in STEM-linked fields. They’ve also touted the benefits of quantitative-reasoning-based courses in teaching problem-solving and critical thinking.

The system’s Board of Trustees, which ramped up conversations on the proposal over the summer and has the power to approve the change, is discussing it again Wednesday morning, with an official vote delayed to January.

Existing barriers in L.A. 

Students in districts like L.A. already confront glaring disparities in college access. Less than half of L.A. Unified’s Class of 2019 cohort — a projected 46 percent — was eligible to apply to the CSU under current admissions standards, which require a C or better in three high school math courses: Algebra I, Geometry and Algebra II.

If that percentage holds, it would mark a slight dip from the prior two years, though it still sits above the 43 percent statewide average publicly available for 2018. About half of California school districts don’t align their graduation requirements to CSU admissions standards, like L.A. Unified does.

The district has also cited concerns with procuring the funds to implement such a proposal. L.A. Unified has been walking a financial tightrope; it lost a June bid for a $500 million annual parcel tax and continues to struggle to rein in deficit spending and adopt balanced budgets that appease county overseers.

“We’re strong supporters of rigor, and we do want to prepare our students for a four-year university. However, we also know that that takes time. It takes money. It takes communication. It takes capacity,” said Katherine Trejo, a former L.A. Unified student who now manages United Way of Greater Los Angeles’s Young Civic Leaders Program.

Both Trejo and college sophomore Mariel Mendoza said they attended high schools in L.A. that offered only one fourth-year math/quantitative reasoning course.

For Trejo, who graduated from a downtown L.A. high school in 2012, it was an AP Calculus class. Her pilot school, unlike most other district schools, required that fourth year. So she took it first semester senior year — failed — and was forced to retake precalculus before graduating.

Mendoza’s Koreatown high school, which she graduated from in 2018, offered an AP statistics course. Students including herself avoided the class, though, she said, because they didn’t feel prepared to take on the advanced material.

The dearth in course diversity and many students’ unawareness of college admissions standards was “heartbreaking,” Mendoza said. In the case of the latest 2018-19 data out of L.A. Unified, it’s unclear whether low enrollment in those fourth-year classes was mainly attributable to capacity issues because of teacher shortages, or if it was also due in part to students choosing not to take them.

“I’m a student of color, and coming from a school like mine [that didn’t have a lot of resources] — we want to have the opportunity to attend a four-year college,” she said. Mendoza is attending both California State University-Los Angeles and Los Angeles City College part time, majoring in business with plans to be an accountant.

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L.A. Unified has made some strides in getting students college-ready, Trejo noted. About 16 percent of the district’s 2018 graduates enrolled in the CSU system, for example, up from about 12.5 percent in 2014. But even L.A. Unified officials themselves say there is still considerable work to be done to ensure that more minority and low-income students have access to postsecondary education.

L.A. Unified’s school board passed a resolution in June opposing CSU’s proposal, claiming it would “further exacerbate barriers to accessing the CSU system” and “ignores the real challenges of limited quantitative course offerings and teachers required to meet such a requirement.” Now-former chief academic officer Frances Gipson acknowledged at that board meeting that “I don’t know that we are necessarily prepared” to teach a fourth year to all students, citing “the staffing requirements, the partnership requirements” that would be needed to “move forward elegantly.”

Kelly Gonez, a district board member who spoke out against the proposal at a CSU public hearing in August, continues to be disenchanted by the university system’s solution to creating equity.

“The change will disproportionately impact our students with the highest needs, including underrepresented, low-income, and first-generation students,” she wrote in a statement Thursday to The 74. “I appreciate the CSU’s effort to strengthen the transition to college, but we can build better pathways without denying opportunities for our most marginalized students.”

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Seeing the data differently

Part of the discord surrounding the proposal is rooted in differing opinions about its scope — whom it ultimately affects, and what data matter as it moves forward.

From CSU’s perspective, the proposal is “concerned with CSU-bound students,” Minor, the assistant vice chancellor and senior strategist, said. “[We’re trying to discern]: Among the students who will arrive to the CSU, who are meeting the [current] requirements, and is it reasonable to ask them to take one additional course to strengthen their preparation for college success?”

From that angle, the data in the proposal tell a more optimistic story. A reported 93 percent of the 126,071 regularly admitted fall 2018 applicants would have met the prospective requirement, according to information acquired through CSU’s recent data-sharing agreement with the California Department of Education. That trend held up fairly well across racial lines, with 88 percent of African-American applicants and 91 percent of Latino applicants having already taken a course that could count.

For L.A. Unified specifically, a reported 91 percent of the 15,169 regularly admitted students in fall 2018 would have met the suggested new standard.

When asked whether there was any intention to conduct further research to glean high-school-level data, Minor responded affirmatively but provided no details, calling the idea of amassing statewide high school data “sort of a false setup.”

“We have to have reasoned discussions. … Not simply impassioned, sort of emotional pleas based on worry about what might happen in the future,” Minor said. “I think we all collectively have to have the courage to go forward.”

Advocates, for now, remain unconvinced and say they will continue their opposition. The Campaign for College Opportunity and Ed Trust-West plan to be at Wednesday’s meeting, urging trustees to press pause on the measure.

If it moves forward, “We plan to galvanize all the forces,” Siqueiros said.

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