Los Angeles, Others Based Plans on San Jose’s Inflated Success

As high schools across the nation look for ways to decrease dropout rates and increase college preparation among their struggling students, the San Jose Unified School District has admitted to reporting better-than-true news about the success of their pilot program.

Instituted for the Class of 2002, this program required all graduating students to be prepared, at least on paper, to pass California's minimum requirements for admission to public universities. Howard Blume and Sarah Butrymowicz of the Los Angeles Times report that San Jose's optimistic reporting led other districts, including the Los Angeles Unified School District, to start similar programs. Now, they may want to rethink this decision.

To attend a UC or Cal State program, high school students must complete not only two years of history and lab science, four years of English and three years of math (including Algebra II) and two years of a foreign language. Passing these courses means getting no lower than a C. By contrast, most high schools permit graduation with grades of a D.

Among minority and high-poverty communities, these requirements have proven to be a challenge. Rates of college-prep completion ran as low as 19% among Latinos and 27% among blacks in San Jose before the new program began. Since obtaining a high school diploma is important for these vulnerable future workers, the new requirements appeared to threaten their chance of graduation.

For six years, San Jose reported that up to 50% of their minority students were graduating having fully completed the new requirements — a remarkable success because concern for these students drove the original reforms. Former Superintendent Linda Murray said she did not want them to "end up with a diploma that means very little in today's world."

The school system claimed full credit for inspiring struggling students to do better and seeing them through the path to success.

"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."

Not only were dropout rates not increasing, Advanced Placement enrollment was up and state standardized test scores improved.

However, San Jose has now admitted that they disguised failures by under-reporting and redefining them. Courses nearly completed by seniors were counted as completed. Grades of D were counted as passing, even if the California public university system would not accept grades lower than C. Perhaps most significantly, students in danger of dropping out were moved to alternative schools — where at least half of the city's Latinos end up.

Not all nearby school districts agree with San Jose's program. While they all share the concern for helping minority students qualify for college, some feel that helping them graduate is more important. Long Beach Supt. Christopher J. Steinhauser finds San Jose's college readiness plan too lofty.

"Why should I deny a kid a diploma because he or she hasn't passed Algebra 2 with a grade of C or better?"

Long Beach has chosen to set target goals but not enforce college-prep requirements for graduation.

It's clear that when standards are set unrealistically high, some sort of modification needs to be made. San Jose's alternative high schools have kept the dropout rate from going up, and many students who grew discouraged by courses they could not pass are still aware of how important a diploma is. One such student interviewed by the LA Times, Alexander Dickerson, had recently graduated from an alternative campus in San Jose.

"[The diploma] was a big thing for me. I am young, but high school was what's going to give me a future."

The community college system, with lower entrance requirements that are more accessible to students with weaker academic backgrounds, can help those students continue to improve.

Los Angeles began phasing in a system based on San Jose's in 2005. Over eight years, the city plans to require all graduating seniors to meet university requirements. Only about 20% of the district's seniors met the goal last year.

The city wants to try to provide better supports to help poor and minority students to meet the new targets. LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy is optimistic:

"This is all about a kid's civil rights. I am confident in our students, that they will rise to the challenge."

One thing is certain: there will be much closer scrutiny of LA's results now that San Jose has admitted to exaggerating their success.

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