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High Schools Get Low Marks in Readying Students for College

Only 23% of youths in a study completed the necessary courses required for admission to the state universities.

June 03, 2004|Duke Helfand | Times Staff Writer

California's high schools are doing a poor job of graduating their students and preparing them for the demands of college, an education policy organization asserts in a report being released today.

The Education Trust-West found that only 23% of students who were ninth-graders in 1999 completed all of the necessary college prep classes by graduation last year to gain admission to the University of California and California State University systems.

Many schools didn't offer enough of those classes, and some students were denied the opportunity to take them, the report said.

The Oakland-based group also estimated that 70% of ninth-graders in 1999 finished high school four years later, a figure confirmed by state education officials.

The Education Trust-West did not delve into dropout rates, which are nearly impossible to pin down because the state does not keep track of individual students who come and go from campuses. Many students take more than four years to finish or gain alternative degrees.

"We've got to jump start our focus on high schools," said Russlynn Ali, executive director of the Education Trust-West. "We are still by and large giving out 20th century diplomas for a 21st century economy."

Educators widely acknowledged the shortcomings of the state's high schools, particularly among overcrowded campuses in poor communities that serve mostly minority students and have disproportionate numbers of inexperienced teachers.

But some school district administrators took issue with the report, saying that college prep classes such as algebra are in fact offered throughout their school systems.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, Deputy Supt. Merle Price called the report "a snapshot that doesn't account for the gaps that kids have coming into high school."

He pointed out that nearly one-third of the system's 180,000 high school students are still learning English. Some of these students need extra time to finish high school and are unable to keep up with the challenging college prep curriculum, he said.

Still, Price said, the district had redoubled efforts to address flagging high school academic performance by expanding English instruction for those still learning the language.

Educators and lawmakers in Sacramento also have tried to craft solutions for improving high school achievement but with mixed results.

An initiative by state schools chief Jack O'Connell and state Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Sun Valley) to require the college prep curriculum for all California high school students fizzled in the Legislature this year amid concerns about allowing the UC and Cal State systems to effectively define the high school curriculum.

The so-called A-G curriculum would have required 15 courses distributed among such areas as English, math, science, history and foreign languages.

"We know this is a long haul," O'Connell said. "But I am absolutely convinced that this is the right direction for our students -- to be prepared for careers and college."

The Education Trust-West also renewed its call for all students to take the college prep curriculum, saying students rise to the occasion and improve when schools maintain high expectations.

The group pointed to school districts such as San Jose Unified, where it said a relatively high percentage -- 47% -- of last year's graduates who were ninth-graders in 1999 completed the advanced curriculum.

"High school is not too late to provide students with the skills they need to pass this curriculum," Ali said.

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