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A too-high graduation bar

L.A. Unified's policy was wishful thinking. It has little choice but to scale back requirements.

April 19, 2012
  • An abysmally small percentage of students who graduated from L.A. Unified schools last year -- 15% -- qualified to enter a four-year college. The
An abysmally small percentage of students who graduated from L.A. Unified… (Los Angeles Times )

There's a lot more to improving education than just raising the bar and expecting everyone to reach it, as the Los Angeles Unified School District is discovering about its ill-conceived, 7-year-old policy to require students to pass a college-prep curriculum in order to graduate.

The district's intentions were good. Not only were too few students attempting the so-called A through G curriculum -- a required series of high school English, math, social studies and other courses required for entry to California's public four-year colleges and universities -- but the numbers attempting it were much lower among disadvantaged black and Latino students. Before the policy was adopted, many school administrators assumed these students were incapable of or uninterested in a future in college and steered them toward a less rigorous course of study.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, May 03, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 16 Editorial Desk 1 inches; 61 words Type of Material: Correction
College prep: An April 19 editorial said that 15% of graduates in the Los Angeles Unified School District last year qualified for entrance to the University of California or California State University. It should have said that of the students who started high school in the district in 2007-08, 15% graduated in 2011 qualified to enter one of those university systems.

What the district should have done is to undertake a thoughtful overhaul of the curriculum, preparing students before they entered high school for the more challenging academic course load and continuing with tutoring and support as they moved from ninth to 12th grades. Instead, under political pressure from justifiably frustrated community groups, the school board merely passed a resolution calling for all students to be required to pass the full college-prep series of courses, starting with the freshman class of 2012.

The resolution was a product of magical thinking rather than wise leadership. It created no plan for how the new bar would be reached -- a plan that should have started with an intensive focus on lower-school math, because the single biggest obstacle to completing college prep was that so many students arrived at high school unprepared for algebra and flunked it repeatedly. Board members and teachers who protested that the resolution would lead to high dropout rates were roundly booed.

As Times staff writer Howard Blume reported Wednesday, the administration now wants to scale back on graduation requirements, with Deputy Supt. Jaime Aquino echoing some words familiar from seven years ago: "We face a massive dropout rate" if the policy goes forward.

An abysmally small percentage of students who graduated from L.A. Unified schools last year -- 15% -- qualified to enter a four-year college. The district could certainly improve on this, yet the school board has little choice at this point but to ease the requirements; it would be unfair and counterproductive to hold students to a standard they have not been prepared to achieve. But in its next move to improve educational outcomes, the board should focus first on a coherent plan for improving instruction, not on an arbitrary bar.

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