Weak high school prep, poor counseling keep most California 9th-graders from a college degree

FERMIN LEAL/EDSOURCE TODAYA student from Santa Ana’s Middle College High School graduation celebrates by decorating her mortarboard with flowers and an inspirational message.FERMIN LEAL/EDSOURCE TODAYA student from Santa Ana’s Middle College High School graduation celebrates by decorating her mortarboard with flowers and an inspirational message.Despite calls for more students to earn a college degree, a new study says most California 9th- graders will never achieve it.
While nearly two-thirds of today’s ninth graders are expected to enter a two or four-year college, a combination of weak high school preparation, poor counseling, and unclear direction at the college level will keep 70 percent from reaching the baccalaureate finish line, the Public Policy Institute of California report concludes.
“There’s a lot policymakers at various levels can do together to address the problem,” said Niu Gao, an author of the report.
The report found that many high school students are not well prepared for the rigors of the University of California and California State University systems because they don’t take courses that those systems expect. The report also dinged the state high school graduation standards for being weaker than what the UCs and Cal States ask for. And the report expressed concern that many high school students don’t take all their college-required courses even though they appear academically prepared.
For example, just 45 percent of high school graduates in 2016 completed the classes known as “A-G” courses required for entry to the University of California and California State University — the state’s two public university systems — which most high school graduates who enroll in a four-year college in California attend.
While some large districts, such as Los Angeles, Oakland and San Diego, now require students to complete these classes to graduate high school, other schools don’t offer the full range of these college preparatory courses.
The report noted that 10 to 14 percent of high schools did not offer the full A-G sequence in either math, science, English or social science. In other cases, students can graduate from high schools with Ds in their A-G courses, even though such grades aren’t good enough for the UCs and Cal States.
The state’s graduation requirements for high school students are also less demanding than the UCs and Cal States. While the two university systems require four years of English for entry, the state graduation standards call for three years. California is one of three states that asks students to complete only two years of math. The UCs and Cal States expect three years of math — including geometry and algebra 2 even though state standards say high school graduates need only pass algebra 1.
“We think high school graduation requirements are an important policy lever” in getting more students to take A-G courses, Gao said.
To arrive at some of their conclusions, the researchers relied on a dataset that included the academic records of roughly 141,000 high school graduates between 2007 and 2014. The data allowed the researchers to study which students went on to certain community colleges and Cal States and when they fell off the path toward a bachelor’s degree.
This sample group lags the state average in completing the necessary A-G courses, with only 36 percent completing the English requirements and 42 percent completing the math requirements with a C or higher.
As for when students in the sample group begin to slip, researchers found that 72 percent of students who didn’t complete their A-G requirements took at least one in math as freshmen, but just 43 percent did so as seniors. There are several reasons for this stalling effect, but the researchers say a big concern is that students simply do not enroll in the right courses to complete their A-G course requirements.
For example, only two-thirds of students who successfully pass algebra 1 take the next A–G course in the sequence (geometry or equivalent). Even when looking at students who earned an A or a B in their math class, about a third do not progress to the next level of math. “This is what we call a progression problem. … it reflects a mismatch between students’ academic potential and their course-taking patterns,” said Gao.
One area of reform is school advising, the authors wrote. “Our evidence suggests that non-academic factors, such as school placement policies and course counseling, may play an important role in student course-taking.” Gao said the 2015 California Mathematics Placement Act could address the variation in how schools advise students in math, but more work needs to be done to ensure all students are recognized for their talents.
Several reforms, including a just-passed state law reforming how community colleges measure the math and English skills of students and CSU’s changes to its remediation practices, may make major strides in seeing more students graduate, Gao said. That’s important because various reports say how students are placed in remedial courses — basic-skills classes that don’t count toward graduation but are required for students who show weak knowledge of math or English — can keep some from graduating with bachelor’s degrees.
In the sample group of students, Gao found that around 20 percent of well-prepared community college students were still placed in remedial courses — classes that research suggests lead to fewer students completing the courses they need to earn an associate’s or transfer to a UC or CSU.
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