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Requiring “A-G” Classes for High School: Raising Expectations or just a Hurdle?

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In response to a national cry for education reform, local school boards in California are starting to require its students to pass “A-G” courses in order to get a high school diploma, a requirement that exceeds the state standards. “A-G” courses are “college prep” high school classes that are certified by the University of California (UC) as being sufficiently rigorous to ”ensure that students have attained a body of general knowledge that will provide breadth and perspective to new, more advanced study” at a UC campus. University of California “A–G Guide (2/19/14). The impact of this trend is causing alarm among some parents and educational advocates because it is making the earning of a diploma even more difficult for a student population that already has low graduation rates.

Carlsbad Unified, Los Angeles Unified, and San Diego Unified are among some of the districts with school boards that have voted to require that students pass courses that are “A-G” certified to obtain a diploma. For students in Carlsbad Unified School District, the “A-G” requirement applies to the class of 2017 and thereafter. In San Diego Unified, the “A-G” requirement applies to students starting with the graduating class of 2016. (See, San Diego Unified School District “Graduation Credit Requirements: Class of 2016 and Beyond”)

The stated purpose of the “A-G” requirement is to increase students’ eligibility to apply to the state’s universities by providing the high quality “A-G” classes to all students. Parents and disabilities rights groups welcome the addition of such courses as options in high school but do not believe that students should have to pass “college readiness” courses to get a high school diploma. The general thought is that the “A-G” requirement will benefit general education students by helping them become eligible for college but that they will deprive many students with special needs who are lower functioning of getting a badly needed high school diploma. As noted by a study on this new trend by the Public Policy Institute of California, “participating in special education is negatively associated with a-g completion.” College Readiness as a Graduation Requirement (J. Betts, A. Zau, K. Volz Bachofer), Public Policy Institute of California (April 2013), (p. 11). See also information from the Advocacy Institute "Employers' Perceptions."

According to the Office of Special Education Programs (U.S. Department of Education), already approximately 40% of students with disabilities fail to obtain a high school diploma and almost 20% of students receiving special education drop out of school altogether. Source: Office of Special Education Programs, Data Accountability Center, (9/9/2013). These national averages are consistent with California's outcome data reported by the California Department of Education. Increasing the difficulty of classes needed for a high school diploma -- given these already low diploma rates of students with disabilities -- is especially concerning parents because the lack of a diploma significantly affects a student’s dependence on family and public resources in adulthood.

Students with disabilities in California who do not drop out or earn a diploma are given a “certificate of completion” to acknowledge that they have completed their four years of high school. But, as noted by Laura Kaloi, Public Policy Director of the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), a certificate of completion does not “provide the same opportunities after high school as a regular diploma…. For example, a certificate of completion has little, if any, value whether we are talking about job opportunities or post secondary education.” (High School Diploma Options and Students with Learning Disabilities, Podcast interview of Laura Kaloi and Dr. Martha Thurlow, Director of the National Center on Educational Outcomes by C. Cortiella of NCLD).

State Mandated Requirements: Under the California Education Code (Ed. Code or EC), students must pass the following courses to earn a diploma:

  • 3 years of English,
  • 2 years of Math (including Algebra 1),
  • 3 years of History/Social Studies (1 year of US history/geography and world history, 1 semester of American government and civics, and 1 semester of economics),
  • 2 years of science (including biological and physical sciences),
  • 1 year of either visual or performing arts, foreign language or career technical education, and
  • 2 years of PE (unless exempted).

EC § 51225.3.

The Ed. Code gives local school boards the authority to require additional classes beyond the requirements set above and almost all school districts have added a certain number of electives to the requirements. Students who pass these courses with at least a 2.0 grade point average and pass the California High School Exit Exam (the CAHSEE) are eligible to earn a high school diploma.

Note: Passage of the CAHSEE is only required for students in public schools. Through 2015, the CAHSEE requirement can be waived for students with IEPs who are not able to pass the exam but who have otherwise met all other graduation requirements.

Who certifies courses as "A-G"? UC faculty establishes the guidelines and course requirements for all “A-G” subject areas. “A-G” subjects earning certification are designed to be more “academically challenging, involving substantial reading, writing, problems and laboratory work … and show serious attention to analytical thinking, factual content and developing students’ oral and listening skills.” University of California “A-G Guide” (2/25/2014).

How do A-G requirements exceed the state mandated requirements? Under the “A-G” requirements, in order for a student to earn a high school diploma:

  • the student will no longer just need to pass Algebra I but the student will also need to pass both Geometry and “intermediate algebra” (a/k/a Algebra II).
  • instead of three years of English, students will now be required to take four years of English;
  • students will need to take 3 years of science with at least 2 lab science classes in the area of biology, chemistry or physics; and
  • at least two years of a language other than English.

Table of Graduation Requirements (Ca. Dept. of Ed).

What are the implications of these new requirements? Per the California Department of Education, Special Education Division data (12/1/12), there are approximately 700,000 students with disabilities who receive special education. Many of these students require access during the school day to the resource or learning centers or to reading intervention programs. Some students may need APE annually to help with physical mobility issues. Other students start high school in algebra readiness or pre-algebra instead of Algebra or Geometry. These students usually need to use their yearly credits or "elective" credits to access these special education classes, supports and services leaving little or no time to take the added A-G courses during their four years at high school. District cuts to summer programs and district views that "ESY" (extended school year) services are solely to avoid regression only make credit recovery and the earning of needed credits even more difficult. Combine these realities with the rigors of the new Common Core State Standards, and the leading implication of the "A-G" requirements is that fewer students with disabilities will earn their high school diploma in districts adopting these added "A-G" requirements.

What do do:

1. If your district has not adopted the "A-G" requirements, stay informed about any "A-G" proposals to the school board and make sure concerns are presented to the board before a decision is made. Reach out to local support groups and resources to inform them of a pending proposal so that the community at large is advised of the proposal and opportunities for input.

2. If your district has already adopted the "A-G" requirements, make sure that all IEPs and transition plans include goals and supports to help the student obtain a high school degree. Under the Lanterman Act, students with qualifying disabilities are entitled to educational services up to age 22 so if the local adult education program is not equipped to provide special education to help a student earn credits towards a diploma, discuss with the IEP team what private or nonpublic services are available to help the student earn a diploma. Also, private schools are not subject to the school board's adoption of the A-G requirements so enrollment in a private school may be a valuable option.

The bottom line is that all persons working with a student with special needs in middle or high school should stay informed about the district's graduation requirements so that sufficient supports and services are in place to help a student earn a diploma regardless of whether the diploma is earned in four years or eight years (Lanterman Act). If a student is not able to meet the A-G requirements in four years, transition plans must include a plan that offers free education up until a diploma is earned or until the student reaches the age 22 if that is what the student and team decides.

Resources and Sources:
1. “College Readiness as a Graduation Requirement” (J. Betts, A. Zau, K. Volz Bachofer), Public Policy Institute of California (April 2013).
2. Table comparing the state high school diploma requirements with UC and CSU requirements for freshman admissions.
3. Table of options for satisfying UC’s “A-G” subject requirements.
3. “Diplomas at Risk: A Critical Look at the Graduation Rates of Students with Learning Disabilities,” C. Cortiella for the National Center for Learnling Disabilities, May 2013.
4. A Consumer's Guide to the Lanterman Act (Department of Developmental Services).

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