Remember the big graduation save of 2015-16? Partway into the school year — the first in which all Los Angeles students had to take the full series of college-preparatory classes in order to earn a diploma — only about half of the seniors in L.A. Unified were on track to graduate. Amazingly, though, the percentage of expected graduates climbed well up into the 60% range within a couple of months; ultimately, it reached 75%.
This hard-to-believe turnaround was accomplished to a great extent through an all-hands-on-deck effort to supply students with makeup classes; district officials now say that 42% of the 2016 graduates were able to walk the stage because of such courses. And a sizable portion of that group — about 3,500 students — met the requirements by taking online credit-recovery courses, with lessons taught by video and tests that were largely graded by computer.
That's a lot of students — a full 13% of the graduating class that wouldn't have graduated without those computer courses. Yet as a Times editorial revealed in 2016, the online courses, created by an outside vendor, are of dubious value. They have a well-designed curriculum, but they're set up so that students can skip entire units by taking 10-question, multiple-choice quizzes beforehand. It would be one thing if those pre-tests were the full end-of-unit tests, which reveal real mastery of the material in that chapter. But they're a thin, simplistic version of an actual test; it's hard to see them as anything but a workaround. Worse yet, students who pass them were allowed to skip writing assignments. In fact, L.A. Unified was making it easier to pass these computer courses than most other districts nationwide.
The credit-recovery courses are only part of the problem. A bigger issue is that L.A. Unified figures show that more than four in 10 graduates weren't mastering their classes well enough to earn at least a D in each of them; that's why so many had to take the makeup courses. And that indicates that the district isn't ready for the "A-G requirement," which mandates that in order to graduate, all students must pass the college-prep courses required for admission to the University of California and California State University.
Given the circumstances — the school board wouldn't drop the well-intentioned A-G requirement — Supt. Michelle King put in an admirable all-out effort to get her students graduated, a goal her predecessors should have planned for much better. But it's doubtful those diplomas reflected what they should have, given the hurried classes that were needed to drive up the graduation rate.
In recent months, the school board has tightened the rules slightly for the online credit-recovery courses, but they still fall short. The National Collegiate Athletic Assn. has far stiffer standards for online credit-recovery courses for student athletes: They have to involve substantially the same investment of time and work as taking a course in a regular classroom. In fact, L.A. Unified was requiring that of its athletes, so it obviously could do more for its other students.
The NCAA rules, though, go too far. If a student is taking a makeup course and has already learned some of the material the first time around, there's no reason to repeat the whole thing. But the tests to determine that should be meaningful reflections of the work involved, not mini-quizzes for which students had access to the Internet to look up answers.
That's the key word: meaningful. The education reform movement was born after the business world saw that many high school graduates lacked even basic skills. That was especially true for black and Latino students who lived in poverty. Efforts were made to strengthen the requirements for promotion and graduation, but that reduced the graduation rates, so now schools are back to softening the requirements. This didn't just happen in L.A. Unified; it's been happening nationwide, and online courses of questionable value threaten to become a major way that schools skip the business of teaching students, while pointing with pride to graduation rates that look good only on paper.
L.A. Unified officials say a new graduation-tracking system will help avoid the emergency situation that confronted schools last year. They also are trying to make the online courses more rigorous by having teachers take a more active role in the process, integrating their instruction with the computer lessons. The district wants to leave it to teachers to determine how well students have learned the online coursework, rather than having the digital tests decide.
If it's done well, that should be a big improvement — and King and her deputies deserve credit for thinking hard about how to how to change the nuts and bolts of teaching and learning to encourage better outcomes. Ultimately, the results will be measured not by the number of students who cross the graduation stage, but by how many are truly ready for college education or decent jobs.