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.
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.
Activists and educators elsewhere had used the inflated results to pressure their school districts to follow suit. Supporters saw the move as a way to reverse low expectations that had excluded or simply dissuaded generations of black and Latino students from pursuing college. Similar efforts have been underway in other states.
In 2005, L.A. Unified passed a college-prep mandate that's being phased in over eight years. To graduate, this year's freshmen will, for the first time, have to pass the minimum number of college-prep classes with a D or better. Next year's ninth-graders must earn a C or better.
If that policy were applied to San Jose's current results, only about a quarter of its black and Latino graduates would earn a diploma by the end of their senior year, the Times analysis found.
In L.A. Unified, about 83% of students are black or Latino. Last year, about 20% of L.A. Unified high school students completed the college-prep requirements within four years.
L.A. school officials said their program will include the support necessary to help students succeed. Supt. John Deasy has insisted that requiring students to get a C or better in these classes is necessary for a diploma to be meaningful and to ensure that low-income and minority students don't have to settle for course work that is "orange drink" rather than "orange juice."
"This is all about a kid's civil rights," Deasy said. "I am confident in our students, that they will rise to the challenge."
Some experts, however, expressed concern.
Given the economic consequences of dropping out, "there should be a reasonable chance for students who pass their courses at any level to get a diploma," said UCLA professor Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project. Preparing more students for college is the right goal, he added.
Long Beach Unified has adopted a different approach to increase the percentage of students who qualify for state universities. It sets annual improvement targets for schools, but no student is denied a diploma for not completing the college-prep classes.
"Why should I deny a kid a diploma because he or she hasn't passed Algebra 2 with a grade of C or better?" Supt. Christopher J. Steinhauser said. "We set the bar really high and look at our progress and we will not be satisfied till we get to 100%."
Long Beach is far from an unqualified success -- only 25% of Latino students and 27% of black students were eligible for state universities in 2011. Those results are somewhat better than in San Jose, according to state and district data.
Recent San Jose graduate Alexander Dickerson, 18, shows the benefits and limitations of that district's efforts. Once, when his guidance counselor at Pioneer High summoned him to discuss his grades -- four Fs and two Ds -- he talked of dropping out. Instead, in the fall of 2011, he ended up at Broadway High, an alternative campus.
Dickerson's grades were too low to qualify him for a state college, but the diploma "was a big thing for me," he said. "I am young, but high school was what's going to give me a future."
Dickerson took classes at Mission College in the fall -- a college-prep diploma isn't required for community college -- and is thinking about majoring in history.
Butrymowicz is a reporter with the Hechinger Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.