New Student Data Show That Half of Graduating Seniors in LA Not Eligible for California’s Public Universities

This article was produced in partnership with LA School Report; see the site's complete coverage of the 2017 LA school board race.
While the Los Angeles Unified School District continues to drive toward higher and higher graduation rates, district data provided to The 74 and LA School Report show that more than half of last year’s graduating seniors received grades that made them ineligible for admission into California’s public universities.

Of the Class of 2016’s 26,806 graduates, 47 percent received only a C or better in all of their A through G required courses, a set of college preparation classes. The minimum requirement for admission into the state’s public universities is a C in the classes. (See the district’s email about student grades in 2016.) 

Two years ago, the school board decided to roll back graduation requirements, allowing students to pass A–G courses with a D instead of a C. At the time, school board members feared thousands of students wouldn’t graduate. The data show that their fears were founded, as roughly 14,200 graduates, or 53 percent, earned at least one D.

At least one school board member said she is open to reconsidering that decision, and advocates are hoping next month’s board runoff will lead to raising the graduation requirement.

This week the University of California system released its admission and enrollment data for the Class of 2016, and of the top 20 schools in LA Unified with the highest UC acceptance rates, calculated by the School Data Nerd blog, more than half were independent charters. Independent charters were not included in the district’s data on A–G grades.

Data for this year show some improvements for the Class of 2017, who appear to be on track to surpass their predecessors, with 50 percent of high school seniors as of late February earning at least a C in all A–G classes.

An internal district memo also shows that 75 percent of high school seniors were on track to pass their A–G courses with a D or better as of mid-March. The data in late February showed that the on-track rates for passing the A–G courses this year is 11 percentage points higher than at the same time last year.

Board member Mónica García said the data indicate the district is making progress, but she’s not calling it a win yet. She said she was in favor of keeping the C minimum in 2015, but she understood the concerns and voted along with her colleagues to roll back the requirement.

At the time, board member George McKenna pointed out that a student who got one or two Ds might not qualify for four-year college but could go to community college or enter the military or civil service with a high school diploma.

“There was a lot of concern that the structure was not in place to support that level of rigor,” García said. “I would say that by the numbers we’re seeing today, we know we can get there. We have to support more students.”

She said in the future the board could revisit the issue.

“I definitely think we will have to wrestle with how will we support the young people in the system with Ds and Fs that we know we haven’t tapped into their talent yet,” she said.

Elmer Roldan, director of education programs and policy at United Way of Greater Los Angeles, said his organization advocated in 2015 to keep the requirement to graduate at a C.

He said he recognizes that the district has been doing a better job of preparing students.

“It’s still not good enough,” he said, noting that 53 percent of the graduates weren’t eligible to enroll in a four-year public university last year.

Roldan said many families believe that if their student graduates high school, he or she will be eligible for college.

“I think a lot of families are surprised when they find out sometimes in 11th or 12th grade that they’ve basically been lied to because they aren’t able to apply to a CSU or a UC,” he said.

Roldan said the school board runoff election could determine whether the board reconsiders the C requirement. The United Way will hold a college readiness forum next month and has invited the school board candidates to participate to discuss this issue and hear from students directly.

“We think the best solution is to increase the requirement and put the supports in place to ensure there is equitable distribution of teachers and resources” to every school, Roldan said.

As required in the 2015 resolution, the district is working on an equity audit to analyze how students at each high school are meeting the A–G requirements. Data from the 2014–15 school year showed that high schools that had low A–G completion rates correlated with whether or not students reported that they believe most adults at the school expect them to go to college.

A district spokeswoman said the district could not provide data on how many graduates in the class of 2015 received a C or better in A–G courses because it did not track the data then. The California Department of Education reported that 51.7 percent of LA Unified graduates in 2015 had completed UC/CSU required courses; however, that figure includes charter schools.

In 2015, 75 percent of students in LA charter schools received a C or better in A–G courses, according to data from the California Charter Schools Association.

A year ago, LA Unified Superintendent Michelle King proclaimed it was “all hands on deck” to help seniors get across the graduation stage under the new graduation requirements.

The school board invested $15 million into a credit-recovery program after it was discovered in January that just 54 percent of students were on track to complete the A–G courses. The rigor of the online credit recovery programs came under scrutiny from LA Unified watchers as well as from those within the district, including the school board president.

In January, LA School Report reported that 42 percent of the graduating Class of 2016 took part in credit recovery either through retaking courses they’ve failed or by using online credit recovery, in which most of the work is done online and over a shorter period of time. LA Unified’s credit recovery policies allow students to opt out of much of the coursework if they pass a pre-test. Other districts’ policies are stricter.

The majority of credit recovery is not done online, said Carol Alexander, the district’s director of A–G intervention and support.

The enhanced efforts resulted in the district’s highest graduation rate yet: 75 percent.

This winter King set a lofty goal of 100 percent graduation, though she has not detailed how the district will get there.

“I think it’s another sign that there is some progress being made, and I’ve been one among many who question whether or not grad rates should be taken seriously when you see such low college readiness. Nevertheless, these improvements in A through G completion rates are a sign of genuine progress, we hope,” said Pedro Noguera, an education professor at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.

“To me it speaks to why the district needs a real strategic plan,” he said, saying that the document King produced was not a real strategic plan.

“These were very ambitious goals that no district, especially no urban district in the country, has ever achieved,” he said. “It doesn’t mean a lot unless it comes with a plan of how you get from where you are to where you want to be.”

While 75 percent of seniors are on track to complete the A–G course requirements with a D or better this year, just 52 percent are on track to complete all academic requirements to graduate, which include a community service project, health and physical education requirements, and chosen electives in their junior and senior years that identify a career pathway.

“Basically what draws that number down is certain requirements that are not completed until the end of the 12th year,” Alexander said.

The requirements with the lowest on-track rates are service learning and social studies, which are usually not completed until the end of 12th grade.

According to the district, 11 percent of students are missing one or two courses, 3 percent are missing three or four courses, and 11 percent are five or more courses behind.

For those students who aren’t on track, the district has deployed diploma program counselors at high schools.

“It’s still about personalization and meeting one on one with students to provide a pathway to getting back on track,” Alexander said.

This is done through an Individual Graduation Plan, which has been completed by 97 percent of students. At this time last year, 59 percent of high school students and 50 percent of middle school students had an IGP.

“We are continuing to make progress toward our goal of graduating all students. The District’s A–G commitment ensures access and opportunity for all students so that they graduate prepared for college, career, and success,” said LA Unified Chief Academic Officer Frances Gipson.

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