L.A. Unified needs to do its homework on college-prep standards

L.A. Unified should find more effective ways to prepare larger numbers of students for college

It’s much easier for members of the L.A. Unified school board sitting on the dais to pass stringent and unrealistic new standards than it is for teachers on the ground to carry them out. Case in point: the district’s requirement that all students take the full schedule of college-prep courses — and earn a grade of C or better — if they want to graduate. It isn’t working.

Passed a decade ago but given 12 years to be fully implemented, the graduation requirement was big on good intentions but short on common sense. School activists were right to demand change in 2005; the situation was unacceptable. Too few students even tried to take the courses, known as the A-G series, required for admission to the University of California and California State University. In many high schools, especially those where disadvantaged students were enrolled, the courses weren’t even available. When they were, black and Latino students were commonly discouraged from taking them or were automatically signed up for an easier set of courses without being told what their options were.

Still, there’s a big difference between encouraging higher standards and setting students up for failure. The board based its policy on a similar effort in the San Jose schools without doing enough research to lean that the supposed success in that district was based on misreported data.

Now L.A. Unified faces its own embarrassing confrontation with reality: As many as three-fourths of its high school sophomores aren’t on track to meet the college-prep graduation standards that take effect in two years, according to district research. The results could be catastrophic. The requirement also has led to a narrowed curriculum and the dropping of elective classes.

The board obviously must heed Supt. Ramon C. Cortines and back away from the policy. In fact, it should drop the A-G requirement altogether and find more effective ways to prepare larger numbers of students for college.

All students must be guaranteed access to the full series of college-prep courses, and they should be encouraged to try taking them. Perhaps A-G should even be the default curriculum, unless students opt out. The board should require regular reports from schools on how many students are taking the courses and, of those, how many are maintaining grades of C or better. It should publish the data and intervene when numbers are disturbingly low.

At the same time, not all students are interested in college, and there will always be jobs that don’t require it. Not everyone needs advanced algebra, one of the A-G requirements. Rigid, all-or-nothing policies ignore the differences in students’ interests and strengths. The goal should be better-educated students prepared for productive lives through well-rounded schooling.

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