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College-prep push is based on false data

School districts such as L.A.'s adopted stricter requirements hoping to emulate a success in San Jose.

January 28, 2013|Howard Blume and Sarah Butrymowicz
  • People outside an L.A. Unified school board meeting in 2005 protest a proposal that would require high school students to pass college-prep courses.
People outside an L.A. Unified school board meeting in 2005 protest a proposal… (Lori Shepler, Los Angeles…)

Eleven years ago, the San Jose school district began requiring all students to pass the classes necessary for admission to the state university systems. Educators elsewhere watched with enthusiasm as early results showed remarkable success.

But San Jose Unified has quietly acknowledged that the district overstated its accomplishments. And a Times analysis of the district's record shows that its progress has not, in fact, far outpaced many other school systems' and, more important, that most San Jose students have never qualified to apply to a state college.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, January 29, 2013 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 Local Desk 2 inches; 83 words Type of Material: Correction
College-prep courses: A chart that accompanied a Jan. 28 article in the LATExtra section about the push for college-prep courses in L.A. Unified high schools incorrectly showed that 34% of San Jose students who graduated in 2011 had completed such courses. The correct number is 36%. Also, one of the article's authors, Sarah Butrymowicz, was identified as a reporter with the Hechinger Foundation. She is a reporter with the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Those results should raise warning flags for other school systems, including Los Angeles Unified, that based key policy decisions on San Jose's misreported data. The risk is that L.A. Unified's version of a college-prep policy could drive students to drop out or delay graduation.

In 2000, before the college-prep program took effect, 40% of San Jose graduates fulfilled requirements for applying to University of California and Cal State University. In 2011, the number was 40.3%. Latino and black students have done worse. Among those who entered high school in fall 2007, about 1 in 5 black and Latino students were eligible to apply to a state college four years later.

Students could graduate without fulfilling college-prep requirements because of two escape hatches: Students were allowed to get only a D in these classes, whereas the state colleges demand a grade of C or better to be eligible. And students who are failing the rigorous classes could transfer to alternative schools and graduate from there.

About 15% of traditional high school students in San Jose Unified don't finish the college-prep sequence, primarily because of credit deficiencies, according to the district. Some -- mostly minority students -- transfer to an alternative school as early as 10th grade.

A notable difference was visible last spring at two graduation ceremonies in San Jose's Rose Garden.

In the afternoon, seniors from Leland High School gave speeches about college and the world beyond, of curing cancer or pursuing world peace. They talked about the robotics club, the debate team presidential awards and National Merit Scholars.

The school's enrollment is 85% white and Asian; less than 8% of students are from low-income families.

Earlier that day, at a more sparsely attended affair, the district held its alternative education graduation for 304 mostly Latino students who had transferred out of traditional high schools. Students spoke about overcoming tough times and thanked those who believed in them.

Compared with its traditional high schools, San Jose's alternative programs enroll nearly 50% more Latinos.

The ethnic imbalance is ironic given that San Jose's college-prep program grew out of concern that far too many Latino students, the largest group in the district, were not on track for college.

Taking simpler courses, they would "end up with a diploma that means very little in today's world," said former Supt. Linda Murray, who led the effort.

Murray, who left San Jose in 2004, said the college-prep program was a success because many students took classes that they would not have otherwise. But it also was important, she added, to have an alternative program so that students who didn't pass all the rigorous courses were not pushed out of school.

Overall scores on state standardized tests have improved, and the percentage of students taking Advanced Placement courses increased incrementally; the dropout rate did not worsen.

"This policy raises expectations for our students," said San Jose Supt. Vincent Matthews, "which in and of itself is a compelling strategy to drive student achievement -- especially for students who have historically not achieved success in educational institutions."

The classes necessary for entrance to the UC and Cal State systems include two years of history or social science; four years of English; three years of math (through Algebra 2); two years of lab science; and two years of foreign language.

The San Jose class of 2002 was the first required to take the minimum college-prep workload and pass each class with at least a D.

For six years, the district misreported its results, counting seniors who were close to completing the college-prep requirements as having done so. San Jose claimed that the percentage of graduates who got at least a C in all these classes rose to nearly two-thirds from just over a third. The rate for Latino students rose to nearly 50% from 18.5%, and for black students to more than 50% from 27%, the district incorrectly reported.

After the district corrected its errors, the district reported only incremental progress that was comparable to school systems without the requirements. Of that class of 2011, a little more than a third completed the college-prep sequence.

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