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Report Number: 2016-114

College Readiness of California's High School Students
The State Can Better Prepare Students for College by Adopting New Strategies and Increasing Oversight

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Chapter 1


Chapter Summary

Our review suggests that when school districts (districts) prioritize college preparatory coursework and the support they provide to students, they significantly affect the likelihood that students will graduate from high school having taken the coursework necessary for admission into the State’s public university systems. In 2010 the San Francisco Unified School District (San Francisco) aligned its graduation coursework requirements with the minimum coursework requirements necessary for admission to the University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU) systems, effectively requiring all its students to complete college preparatory coursework to graduate.2 Of the three districts we reviewed—San Francisco, Stockton Unified School District (Stockton), and Coachella Valley Unified School District (Coachella)—we found that San Francisco’s college preparatory coursework completion rates (completion rates) were significantly higher than those of the other two districts. Specifically, in 2015 only 21 percent of Stockton’s students successfully completed the college preparatory coursework, while 30 percent of Coachella’s students met these requirements. In contrast, 69 percent of students in San Francisco completed college preparatory coursework.

Completion rates at the three districts we reviewed were also heavily influenced by students’ ability to complete coursework on a prescribed track beginning in grade nine. We found that the majority of students who fell off track at some point during their high school careers did so during grade nine. Although few of these students in any of the three districts went on to complete the remainder of their college preparatory coursework, we found that San Francisco provided a number of resources that ensured that significantly more of its students met the necessary requirements. Similarly, underrepresented minorities and English learners in all three districts showed achievement gaps in completing college preparatory coursework but fared better in San Francisco than in the other districts we reviewed—another likely result of the amount of support San Francisco provides.

Completion Rates of College Preparatory Coursework Vary Widely by School District but Can Be Improved With Increased Expectations and Appropriate Interventions

School districts statewide, and the three school districts we selected for review, varied widely in the rates at which their students completed college preparatory coursework. However, the data show that school districts, such as San Francisco, can increase completion rates when they increase expectations and corresponding interventions and support. According to data maintained by the California Department of Education (Education), completion rates for districts within the State ranged from 11 percent to 61 percent in 2014–15, with 43 percent of students completing college preparatory coursework requirement statewide. Education’s data also indicated that Stockton’s and Coachella’s completion rates were 35 percent and 29 percent, respectively, in 2014–15. In contrast, Education’s data indicated that San Francisco’s completion rate was 60 percent—the second‑highest average statewide.

Using a different methodology, which yielded similar results, we conducted a detailed analysis of student‑level cohort data to determine the completion rates for students who were enrolled in grade nine in each of the districts we reviewed.3 As Figure 2 illustrates, the completion rates for students in the 2013 through 2015 graduating classes ranged from 19 percent to 22 percent in Stockton, 25 percent to 31 percent in Coachella, and 61 percent to 69 percent in San Francisco.

Figure 2
College Preparatory Coursework Completion Rates Vary Significantly in the Three Districts We Reviewed
Graduation Years 2013 Through 2015

Figure 2 displays the college preparatory coursework completion rates of our selected districts during graduation years 2013, 2014, and 2015

Source: California State Auditor’s analysis of student data provided by Coachella Valley, San Francisco, and Stockton Unified School Districts.

Students’ ability to stay on a prescribed track is critical to their completing college preparatory coursework. For students to complete college preparatory coursework necessary for admission into UC or CSU by the end of grade 12, they must enroll in and complete—with a grade of C‑ or better—15 courses across several subjects, as we show in Figure 3.4 We considered students who enrolled in and completed the minimum number of courses with a grade of C‑ or better each year in the prescribed sequence to be on track. Students must complete multiple courses for many of these subjects. For example, students must take four years of English; thus, most students who wish to meet the State’s public university systems’ admission standards will need to complete a college preparatory English course during each of their four high school years.

Figure 3
Students Must Complete a General Sequence of Courses to Be On Track to Complete College Preparatory Requirements by the End of Their Fourth Year

Figure 3 shows the general sequence of courses that students must finish to be on track to complete their a through g coursework requirements.

Source: California State Auditor’s analysis of policies provided by Coachella Valley, San Francisco, and Stockton Unified School Districts, and the University of California (UC).

Notes: Students must pass all courses with a grade of C- or better.

Credits for courses attended during summer school count toward the prior school year.

* A–G = History (A), English (B), Math (C), Science (D), Foreign Language (E), Visual and Performing Arts (F), College Preparatory Elective (G).

Although students must complete two years of foreign language courses, UC also allows validation rules to be applied to meet these requirements by successfully completing the second semester of a level 2 or higher foreign language course. This could reduce the number of cumulative credits required.

As Table 3 shows, the majority of students in graduation years 2013 through 2015 in Coachella and Stockton fell off track at some point during their high school careers and few of those students went on to complete all the necessary college preparatory coursework by the end of high school. Specifically, 79 percent and 84 percent of Coachella and Stockton students, respectively, fell off track at some point during their four years of high school, and only 10 percent and 5 percent of those students were able to eventually get back on track and meet all coursework requirements. San Francisco was more successful at keeping students on the prescribed track: 41 percent fell off track at some point during their high school careers and the district helped a higher percentage—13 percent—of off‑track students to eventually complete all the college preparatory coursework requirements. These data suggest that districts should focus resources, when limited, on keeping students on track and, in particular, on helping students successfully complete grade nine required coursework.

Table 3
Students Who Fell Off Track at Any Point During High School Were Not Likely to Complete College Preparatory Requirements
Graduation Years 2013 Through 2015
Coachella Valley 2,459 79%   245 10% 2,214 90%
San Francisco 3,706 41 482 13 3,224 87
Stockton 3,904 84 212 5 3,692 95

Source: California State Auditor’s analysis of data provided by Coachella Valley, San Francisco, and Stockton Unified School Districts.

Note: We excluded students who left the district.

Students Who Fail to Meet College Preparatory Requirements as Freshman Are Unlikely to Complete Coursework Needed for Admission to the State’s Public University Systems

Completion rates at the three districts we reviewed depended heavily on students’ ability to complete coursework on a prescribed track beginning in grade nine. At each of the three districts, we found that the majority of students who fell off this track did so during grade nine and few of them went on to complete the remainder of their college preparatory coursework. Thus, it is imperative that districts ensure students’ enrollment in and successful completion of college preparatory coursework beginning in their first year of high school.

Seventy‑two percent of students who fell off track in Stockton, 80 percent of those who did so in Coachella, and 56 percent of those who fell of track in San Francisco, fell off track during grade nine, as Figure 4 shows. Of concern is that an average of only 9 percent of the students who fell off track in grade nine in the three districts we reviewed completed the coursework necessary to gain admission to the State’s public university systems, which highlights the importance of that first year of high school. Moreover, as Figure 5 shows, students in San Francisco who fell off track in grade nine had slightly better success—10 percent—in completing college preparatory coursework than comparable students in Coachella and Stockton—at 6 percent and 3 percent, respectively. Falling off track during grade nine likely presents the greatest challenge for students because getting back on track requires them to successfully complete an even more demanding course load than their peers who did not fall off track. For example, if a ninth‑grade student receives an F in English 1, that student would need to receive a C‑ or better in both English 1 and 2 in a subsequent year, in addition to passing their other necessary classes, to get back on track.

Figure 4
Most Students Who Fell Off Track Did So in Grade Nine
Graduation Years 2013 Through 2015

Figure 4 shows most students who fell off track to meet college preparatory course requirements during graduation years 2013 through 2015 did so in grade 9.

Source: California State Auditor’s analysis of student data provided by Coachella Valley, San Francisco, and Stockton Unified School Districts.

Notes: We calculated the number of students who fell off track to meet college preparatory requirements during each year of school for students in our cohorts who graduated high school in years 2013 through 2015.

We excluded students who left the district.

Figure 5
Most Students Who Fell Off Track in Grade Nine Did Not Complete College Preparatory Coursework
Graduation Years 2013 Through 2015

Fig. 5 shows that most students who fell of track in grade 9 did not complete a through g coursework requirements during graduation years 2013 through 2015.

Source: California State Auditor’s analysis of student data provided by Coachella Valley, San Francisco, and Stockton Unified School Districts.

Our analysis shows that students struggled most significantly with English and math courses—the two subject areas which CSU and UC require be taken for the most years. As Figure 6 shows, we found that for students in graduation years 2013 through 2015, about 60 percent of students in Stockton and Coachella did not meet the English and math college preparatory course requirements. In San Francisco, about 25 percent of students did not meet these requirements. We found that, on average, 50 percent of Stockton students, 53 percent of Coachella students, and 25 percent of San Francisco students did not pass a college preparatory English class by the end of grade nine. Further, on average, about 40 percent of students in Stockton, 35 percent of students in Coachella, and 13 percent of students in San Francisco had not passed a college preparatory math class by grade 10.

Figure 6
English and Math Requirements Presented the Greatest Challenge to Students
Graduation Years 2013 Through 2015

Figure 6 demonstrates that the English and math requirements presented the greatest challenge to students in graduation years 2013 through 2015.

Source: California State Auditor’s analysis of data provided by Coachella Valley, San Francisco, and Stockton Unified School Districts.

Note: We excluded students who left the district.

Many Stockton and Coachella students needed additional assistance in grade nine to pass some college preparatory courses. Districts offer support classes to provide supplementary or preventative assistance to help students successfully complete college preparatory coursework. Districts enroll students in these support courses when they determine that students are not academically prepared for college preparatory coursework. These classes can be taken before enrolling in a college preparatory course or simultaneously. We reviewed districts’ enrollment figures for support classes and found that an average of 60 percent of Coachella’s grade nine students enrolled in a math support class and 30 percent of grade nine students enrolled in an English support class. The executive curriculum director at Stockton indicated that a barrier to college preparatory coursework completion is a lack of students adequately prepared for grade level coursework as freshmen. In Stockton, the district identified math support courses in which 14 percent of its grade nine students were enrolled. In contrast, San Francisco’s policy is to automatically enroll students in college preparatory courses, rather than support courses.

The percentage of students enrolled in college preparatory courses does not appear to have a significant impact on completion rates. There is not a noteworthy gap between districts related to the percentage of students enrolled in college preparatory courses. As Figure 7 shows, San Francisco enrolled an average of only 3 percent more of its grade nine students in college preparatory English courses than did Stockton for graduating years 2013 through 2015. Given that San Francisco’s completion rate is considerably higher than Coachella’s and Stockton’s, it appears that factors other than the enrollment rates in those courses influenced completion rates.

Figure 7
Enrollment Rates in College Preparatory Math and English Courses in Grade Nine Did Not Vary Significantly
Graduation Years 2013 Through 2015

Figure 7 shows that ninth grade enrollment rates in a through g math and English courses did not vary significantly during graduation years 2013 through 2015.

Source: California State Auditor’s analysis of student data provided by Coachella Valley, San Francisco, and Stockton Unified School Districts.

Funds to help kindergarten through grade eight students prepare for the rigor of college preparatory coursework could help keep more high school students on track to complete the coursework requirements by their senior year. In 2016 the Legislature approved a similar funding strategy for high school students. The College Readiness Block Grant (Block Grant) allocated $200 million to provide additional support to high school students, particularly unduplicated students, to increase the number of students who enroll in institutions of higher education and complete a bachelor’s degree within four years. Districts could use those funds for support activities such as professional development, counseling programs, and programs to expand access to classes to satisfy the college preparatory coursework requirements.

San Francisco presented a plan for its Block Grant that focused on college counseling, city college dual enrollment efforts, and using micro funding tailored to meet individual school needs. Stockton’s approach included increasing services to high school students, specifically its unduplicated students, through increased staffing oversight, covering assessment fees for standardized tests for college admission, and assigning a dedicated mentor to incoming students to support them throughout their high school experience. Stockton plans to establish a freshman boot camp to support incoming students, followed by field trips to colleges. Students would have the opportunity to meet with counselors who review assessments and transcripts. Stockton also plans to enhance its data collection efforts to measure the effectiveness of its plans. According to the director of state and federal projects at Coachella, the district has yet to submit its plan to Education, but plans to do so in February 2017. We believe that similar funding and support strategies targeted at kindergarten through grade eight students could help prepare California’s students for meeting the minimum coursework requirements needed for admission to UC and CSU.

Although the Six Schools We Reviewed Appear to Have Provided Sufficient Access to College Preparatory Coursework for Certain Years, the Data Were Significantly Limited

State law requires school districts that maintain any grades from seven to 12 inclusive to offer all of their students coursework that will allow them to meet the minimum requirements for admission to California’s public postsecondary educational institutions. To evaluate whether sufficient access existed, we reviewed the percentage of total courses offered at each of the three districts we visited, and found that the percentages did not vary significantly among the districts. Specifically, in 2014–15, 55 percent and 58 percent of all the courses offered at Coachella and Stockton, respectively, were college preparatory courses. In San Francisco, this percentage was 63. We also conducted a detailed course‑by‑course analysis by reviewing the schedules of courses offered at two high schools in each of three school districts and compared the courses offered to the schools’ enrollments. When the schools had maintained the information we needed, we found that they had provided students with sufficient access to college preparatory coursework. This finding suggests that access did not present a significant barrier to the completion of college preparatory courses. However, four of the six high schools were unable to supply us with the data necessary to determine that they had provided sufficient access for all years in our audit period.

The data available suggests that adequate capacity existed to allow students to take the full range of college preparatory requirements during grades nine through 12 at the six schools we selected. For example, to allow students to take the required four years of college preparatory English, traditional semester‑based high schools should offer access to these classes for 100 percent of their students every year. The two schools in Coachella exceeded this obligation during the years for which data were available: Coachella Valley High School provided a sufficient number of seats for 169 percent of its students in 2011–12, and Desert Mirage High School provided enough seats for 119 percent of its students in 2014–15 as Appendix A demonstrates. Likewise, San Francisco offered seats for more than 100 percent of its students at Mission and Washington high schools during 2013–14 and 2014–15—the years for which the schools were able to provide usable data.

In Stockton, however, Franklin High School satisfied the minimum English access requirement by enrolling students past the maximum capacity of 32 students per section. For example, Franklin High School overenrolled 116 students in 24 different English sections. The Franklin High School principal did not respond to our numerous requests for perspective on this issue. Moreover, during that same period, Franklin High School enrolled 213 students in other college preparatory courses, such as chemistry and earth science, beyond the maximum capacity for sections of those courses. We also reviewed course enrollments during 2014–15 at George Washington High School in San Francisco and Desert Mirage High School in Coachella. At George Washington High School, we found 22 students overenrolled in 16 college preparatory sections, and at Desert Mirage High School we identified four students who were overenrolled. Thus, although these high schools technically met the access requirement—Franklin High School in particular—they did so in a manner that may have negatively affected the success of all the students in those overenrolled sections.

Furthermore, although each high school we reviewed did not meet the minimum access requirements in every category for every year, as Table A in Appendix A shows, these deficiencies were unlikely to have affected students’ opportunities to complete all of the college preparatory requirements. For example, several schools failed to meet the minimum two‑year foreign language requirement. However, admissions criteria allow students to take only one year of a foreign language if it is a higher level course, potentially decreasing the number of foreign language courses that schools need to offer.5 In other instances, schools that did not offer enough college preparatory elective classes had excess capacity in other course categories such as English or foreign language, so students could take those courses to satisfy their elective requirements. Table A includes explanations for why some schools’ failure to meet certain access targets likely did not harm students.

Additionally, we verified that all of our selected schools other than Coachella Valley High School offered courses with sufficient frequency so that students had the ability to take the courses they needed during the school day in 2014–15. In other words, we did not identify any cases in which a school offered all courses for multiple categories—such as English and math—during the same period of the day. Thus, the times at which schools offered courses did not present a barrier to students’ access to those classes for 2014–15. We were unable to verify that Coachella Valley High School offered courses with sufficient frequency throughout the school day because it did not retain this information.

The manner in which our selected schools built their course schedules likely resulted in them offering sufficient access to college preparatory courses for the years we were able to review. The schools within our selected districts asserted that each year they used a number of factors to build their course schedules, including schedule types, graduation requirements, and student requests. These factors enabled the schools to determine which college preparatory courses students wanted or needed each year. When we spoke with other districts, including San Diego Unified and Vallejo City Unified, they stated that—similar to San Francisco—they provide sufficient access based on college preparatory‑aligned graduation requirements.

Although we were able to reach certain conclusions about course access at the six high schools we selected, significant data limitations impeded our ability to definitively determine whether the schools in the districts we reviewed provided adequate course access for each year we reviewed from 2011–12 through 2014–15. For example, San Francisco’s former data system, which it used through 2012–13, did not track whether the courses it offered were for a semester or a full year. Coachella’s practice has been to mark courses that ended before the final term of the school year as inactive, which made it appear that Coachella failed to offer courses even though it did actually offer them. Stockton, as we discuss later, incorrectly marked 60 courses as college preparatory coursework certified, even though UC had not certified them. However, our review did not address whether the districts as a whole were offering appropriate levels of access to college preparatory courses because that would require evaluating every high school in the district.

Districts would need to conduct analyses similar to what we performed to demonstrate they are offering appropriate levels of access; however, none of the three we reviewed have done so. The data limitations we identified serve to illustrate the improvements in data retention and analysis that would be necessary for districts to demonstrate whether they provide all students with required access to college preparatory coursework. Without the proper data systems and processes in place, the districts cannot demonstrate to their stakeholders that they are complying with state law.

Although Achievement Gaps Exist in All Three Districts We Reviewed, Certain Subgroups of Students Fared Better in San Francisco Than in Coachella and Stockton

In all three districts we reviewed, we identified achievement gaps in completing college preparatory coursework; however, certain subgroups of students—such as underrepresented minorities, and English learners—generally fared better in San Francisco than in Coachella or Stockton.6 As we show in Figure 8, for students in graduation years 2013 through 2015, underrepresented minorities’ completion rates in San Francisco ranged from 26 percent to 41 percent.7 These rates were generally less than half of those of white and Asian students, ranging from 72 percent to 78 percent. Stockton’s achievement gap narrowed for students in graduation years 2014 through 2015 due to the declining completion rate among white and Asian students. Stockton’s underrepresented minorities’ completion rates ranged from 17 percent to 19 percent, whereas completion rates for white and Asian students ranged from 25 percent to 29 percent. In Coachella, the completion rates for underrepresented minorities ranged from 25 percent to 31 percent.

Figure 8
Completion Rate Achievement Gaps Exist Among Demographic Subgroups
Graduation Years 2013 Through 2015

Figure 8 illustrates that completion rate achievement gaps existed among demographic subgroups for graduation years 2013 through 2015.

Source: California State Auditor’s analysis of student data provided by Coachella Valley, San Francisco, and Stockton Unified School Districts.

Notes: We did not include students who identified as white or Asian in Coachella because the subgroup is made up of fewer than 50 students. State law instructs the California Department of Education to report completion rates only for subgroups whose population exceeds 50 students.

For the purpose of this analysis we used the University of California’s (UC) definition for underrepresented minorities. Specifically, the UC considers underrepresented minorities to be Chicano/Latino, African American, and American Indian.

We excluded students who left the district.

Moreover, an appreciably higher percentage of Chicano/Latino students in San Francisco completed college preparatory requirements than did so in the other two districts we reviewed. Specifically, 42 percent of Chicano/Latino students in San Francisco’s 2015 graduating class completed all college preparatory coursework, compared to only 29 percent in Coachella and 20 percent in Stockton, as Figure 9 shows. Chicano/Latino students averaged 96 percent of the student population in Coachella, 57 percent of the student population in Stockton, and 21 percent of the student population in San Francisco from 2012–13 through 2014–15.

Figure 9
Chicano/Latino Students in San Francisco Completed College Preparatory Coursework at Higher Rates Than in Coachella Valley or Stockton
Graduation Years 2013 Through 2015

Figure 9 shows that Chicano/Latino students in San Francisco completed a through g requirements at higher rates than in other districts during 2013 through 2015.

Source: California State Auditor’s analysis of student data provided by Coachella Valley, San Francisco, and Stockton Unified School Districts.

Note: We excluded students who left the district.

Furthermore, San Francisco’s completion rate for unduplicated students—students who are eligible to receive free or reduced price meals at school, English learners, and youth in foster care—was three times that of similar students in Stockton and two times that of students in Coachella, as Figure 10 illustrates. English learners—a subgroup of unduplicated students—in San Francisco also had significantly higher completion rates than those in Stockton and Coachella, as we show in Figure 11. However, English learners had the lowest completion rate out of any subgroup we evaluated across all districts. Interestingly, we found that reclassified English learners had higher completion rates than English‑fluent students across all three districts as Table B.2 in Appendix B shows. Reclassified English learners are students who were initially classified as English learners but who subsequently met criteria for English proficiency. Completion rates for reclassified English learners in graduation years 2013 through 2015 ranged from 74 percent to 78 percent in San Francisco, from 43 percent to 51 percent in Coachella, and from 26 percent to 29 percent in Stockton. These completion rates ranged from 5 percent to 23 percent higher than those of English‑fluent students within the same districts over the same time period.

Figure 10
The Completion Rate for Unduplicated Pupils in San Francisco Was Notably Higher Than in Coachella Valley or Stockton
Graduation Years 2013 Through 2015

Figure 10 shows that the completion rates for unduplicated pupils in San Francisco was notably higher than in our other selected districts

Source: California State Auditor’s analysis of student data provided by Coachella Valley, San Francisco, and Stockton Unified School Districts.

Notes: State law defines unduplicated pupils as youth in foster care, students eligible to receive free or reduced‑price lunches, and English learners.

We excluded students who left the district

Figure 11
English Learners in San Francisco Had Significantly Better College Preparatory Course Outcomes
Graduation Years 2013 Through 2015

Figure 11 shows that college preparatory course completion rates for English learners  were better in San Francisco than in Coachella or Stockton during graduation years 2013 through 2015

Source: California State Auditor’s analysis of student data provided by Coachella Valley, San Francisco, and Stockton Unified School Districts.

Note: We excluded students who left the district

When we questioned staff at the three districts, we received disparate opinions regarding the reasons for the achievement gaps. The assistant superintendent of San Francisco indicated that he was aware of the achievement gaps and was pleased that they appeared to be narrowing; however, he does not have perspective about why they exist. The executive director of curriculum for Stockton contended that multiple factors may affect outcomes for students of different ethnic backgrounds, including cultural expectations as reflected in the UC enrollment data. Principals from San Francisco and Stockton, and counselors from Coachella, indicated that English learners face challenges to completing college preparatory coursework. One stated that this is in part because they are learning the English language while at the same time they are expected to learn the curriculum in English. However, staff from Coachella indicated that reclassified English learners have higher completion rates because these students receive significant support from their districts and schools, and staff from Stockton and San Francisco indicated that meeting the high reclassification standards requires enormous effort on the part of the students.

By Implementing Best Practices, Districts May be Able to Improve Students’ College Preparedness

As we discuss throughout this chapter, San Francisco has been consistently more successful than the other two districts we reviewed in ensuring that students complete college preparatory coursework. Not only has San Francisco aligned its coursework graduation requirements with the minimum coursework necessary for admission to UC and the CSU, it also employs a variety of best practices to provide students with sufficient support during their high school careers. These practices include a process to identify students who have fallen off track to complete college preparatory coursework requirements, targeted interventions for students who do not meet college preparatory coursework requirements, various credit recovery options, and a robust centralized process to ensure course certification. Although Stockton and Coachella offered their own best practices, opportunities remain for improvement, particularly with regard to course certification processes and to providing more consistent identification of and assistance to students who are struggling to meet college preparatory requirements.

San Francisco Has Implemented a System to Provide Timely Interventions for Students Who Fall Off Track for Completing College Preparatory Coursework

The districts we visited have implemented support services to assist students who are struggling to complete college preparatory coursework, and they have established pathways for students to recover credits. However, San Francisco has taken the additional step of implementing a systematic districtwide identification and intervention for students who are at risk of not meeting the coursework requirements for admissions eligibility to the State’s public universities. According to San Francisco’s executive director of the office of college and career readiness, the district’s high completion rates are due to several factors. In addition to its 2010 alignment of its graduation coursework requirements with college preparatory coursework requirements, San Francisco attributes its success to its centralized process and ongoing identification of off track students coupled with targeted interventions for those students.

San Francisco implemented a process to identify students who have fallen off track to completing college preparatory coursework requirements. San Francisco’s executive director of the office of college and career readiness explained that the district began identifying students who were off track to complete college preparatory requirements in 2013–14 after working with Stanford University to develop its off track definitions. San Francisco’s policy defines students as off track if they do not receive a grade of D or better in college preparatory courses or do not complete a specific number of credits dependent on their grade level.8

San Francisco’s policy involves both districtwide and local efforts during fall and spring semesters. The district creates a list of students who have fallen off track. Although school counselors in the other districts we reviewed meet with students at various times throughout the school year and document those meetings in different ways, San Francisco school counselors are required to meet with the off track students, discuss credit recovery options such as summer and evening school, and document the conference using academic review plans that record student progress toward completion of coursework requirements. Further, San Francisco sends a letter to the parents of students who have fallen off track and conducts a series of community meetings to meet with families of students who are not meeting grade‑level requirements. These targeted interventions are an important component of San Francisco’s high college preparatory coursework completion rates.

Coachella lacks similarly robust processes to intervene with students who have fallen off track to complete college preparatory coursework. Beginning in 2014–15, Coachella contracted with the Riverside County Office of Education (Riverside County) to conduct a college preparatory transcript analysis. Riverside County’s analysis identifies whether students are off track, on track, or potentially on track to meeting college preparatory requirements. However, the analysis only recommends course schedule alterations for students who are close to meeting or are already meeting requirements, but not for students determined to be off track. There is no policy requiring counselors to meet with all students who are identified as not meeting college preparatory requirements. The director of secondary education said it would not be effective to alter course schedules for students who do not have a possibility of getting back on track to meet the college preparatory coursework requirements.

Stockton has no process in place to identify whether a student has fallen off track or to intervene when students are not on track to meet college preparatory requirements. Instead, the executive director of curriculum explained that the district expects counselors to review graduation progress with students and to discuss their college preparatory coursework completion progress as part of those meetings. However, the lack of a formal process means that the district has no way of ensuring that all affected students receive such meetings or that the meetings include discussions of the actions the students should take to ensure they complete the college preparatory coursework. We believe districts without criteria for determining whether students are meeting college preparatory requirements and formal processes for intervening when students fall off track may not be adequately supporting students at a critical point in their academic careers.

San Francisco Offers More Comprehensive Programs to Assist Struggling Students Than the Other Districts We Reviewed

We met with personnel in each district we reviewed to discuss best practices and found that the approaches the three districts employed in achieving college readiness for their students varied significantly, as we show in Table 4. Reported practices ranged from district‑level physical and mental wellness centers to school‑specific efforts, such as freshman mentoring groups led by faculty and administrators. We found that San Francisco offered a more comprehensive selection of programs to assist students than did either Coachella or Stockton, which likely contributes to its higher completion rates.

Table 4
Districts and Schools Employ a Variety of Best Practices
Robust centralized process for college preparatory coursework certification    
Credit recovery—Saturday school    
Credit recovery—evening school/extended school day ✔*
Credit recovery—online courses
Credit recovery—summer school
Robust district level college preparatory coursework off track reports    
City college dual enrollment ✔*
Fifth year graduation option
After school tutoring
Academies/special programs within comprehensive high schools
District counseling handbook    

Source: California State Auditor’s interviews with school and district personnel from Coachella Valley, San Francisco, and Stockton Unified School Districts.

Note: We asked each district to provide which they asserted helped them in improving college preparatory completion rates and supporting students.

= Best practice present throughout district.
✔* = Best practice reported as present throughout district, but support not provided.

San Francisco attributes its student college preparatory success in part to intervention systems such as credit recovery options for students who need to retake courses. For example, although all three districts reported offering several credit recovery options for students, San Francisco provided the greatest variety of options. Its offerings included Saturday school, summer school, extended day, evening, online courses, enrollment in community colleges, and a fifth year graduation option.

Stockton’s and Coachella’s credit recovery offerings were inconsistent from year to year. For example, Edison High School in Stockton at one point provided Saturday school; however, it stopped offering the program when the grant that funded it was discontinued. Similarly, Coachella currently offers credit recovery by providing summer school; however, this option has only been available for the past two years. Moreover, San Francisco enrolled more students in its credit recovery options than Coachella—22 percent compared to 13 percent, respectively. San Francisco provided data showing that more than 4,200 students enrolled in credit recovery offerings in 2014–15. The largest of these programs were evening and summer school. Stockton was not able to provide data related to enrollment in its credit recovery options.

San Francisco is able to provide additional credit recovery options in part using supplemental local funding through a grant program it calls Sprout. According to the executive director of the office of college and career readiness, these grants range from about $3,000 to $10,000 per school and their purpose is to provide an equitable distribution of additional funds to schools regardless of the population served, location, or size. San Francisco describes Sprout grants as providing critical micro funding to local school sites to support a variety of intervention and credit recovery programs, which the schools propose to the district for funding approval. For example, in fall 2013, the district reported that one of its schools used Sprout funding to offer an additional literature course after school, which was opened to all district students who wished to attend. According to a case analysis provided by San Francisco, participants included a high percentage of Latino or African‑American students, and more than half were identified as off track to graduate by one semester. The case analysis concluded that more than 80 percent of students who attended the course completed it with a grade of D or higher at a total cost of $5,700.

San Francisco’s Centralized Course Certification Process Helps to Ensure the Accuracy of Its College Preparatory Efforts

As we discussed in the Introduction, districts must submit potential college preparatory courses to UC for approval. To ensure that this process works smoothly, San Francisco has established a strong centralized course certification and management process, which benefits both students and educators. This system could provide similar benefits not only in Coachella and Stockton but throughout the State. As Figure 12 illustrates, San Francisco’s process for developing a new college preparatory course involves a school working with the district course manager (manager). The supervisor of secondary programs stated that the manager writes all or a substantial portion of the documents San Francisco eventually submits to UC for certification, thus lessening the load on educators. The manager also meets with the administration at each school on a biannual basis to check the accuracy of the school’s master schedule compared to UC’s approved course lists. The robust nature of San Francisco’s certification process has reduced instances of misidentified courses, which—as we discuss below—can disadvantage students. Furthermore, the manager’s detailed knowledge of the certification process can assist educators by reducing the work associated with course creation.

Figure 12
School Districts Should Adopt a Strong Centralized Process Similar to San Francisco’s for College Preparatory Course Submission and Maintenance

Figure 12 shows the process used by San Francisco for college preparatory course submission and maintenance.

Sources: California State Auditor’s analysis of San Francisco Unified School District’s centralized process documentation and interviews.

In contrast, Stockton and Coachella lack strong centralized college preparatory coursework certification processes. For instance, although Stockton had a staff member who acts as a centralized coordinator, the district misidentified a total of 60 courses over four academic years in the two schools we reviewed. Based on the number of incorrectly identified courses, Stockton has not implemented an effective review with all high schools to reconcile their master schedules with UC’s college preparatory course listings. Coachella does not have a dedicated, centralized coordinator, other than the director of secondary education, who oversees administrators at each school site. Each site‑specific administrator manages the college preparatory submission for that particular school.

The impact of poor processes is that districts incorrectly identify college preparatory courses as certified by UC, and students could enroll in those courses believing that they are certified, even though they are not. Our review of Stockton’s database identified numerous errors in the master schedules of our selected schools. Specifically, from 2011 through 2015, Stockton incorrectly identified 60 courses as having been approved by UC, when they had not been certified, as shown in Table 5. These classes included Spanish, Biology, and French and likely should have been college preparatory certified, but were not. Similarly, Coachella misidentified at least 13 courses; however, problems with its database prevented us from reviewing all potentially incorrectly certified courses. Although San Francisco incorrectly identified 10 courses, no students were adversely affected.

Table 5
Students’ Abilities to Meet College Preparatory Coursework Requirements May Be Negatively Affected if Districts Misidentify Courses
Coachella Valley 13 118
San Francisco 10 0
Stockton 60 53
Totals 83 171

Sources: California State Auditor’s analysis of data obtained from Coachella Valley, San Francisco, and Stockton Unified School Districts’ master schedules, transcript data, and the University of California Course Management Portal.

Note: In Coachella and Stockton, these course misidentifications took place in 2011–2015. In San Francisco, the course misidentifications took place in 2013–2015.

Table 5 illustrates that Stockton’s and Coachella’s misidentified courses from 2011–12 through 2014–15 resulted in at least 171 students who would have otherwise completed all college preparatory coursework and may have been unable to meet UC and CSU coursework admission requirements. Moreover, Stockton provided a student handbook, which listed several courses as certified when the UC had not actually certified them. This mistake may have caused students who planned to attend a UC or CSU school to select courses that would not have met the eligibility requirements for these institutions. We do not know whether UC or CSU would have actually denied admission to the students who took these courses; nevertheless, the potential effect of these errors on students serves to demonstrate the importance of a strong centralized process.

When asked for perspective about why these errors occurred, Coachella’s director of secondary education noted that the district was aware of the problems and that the majority of courses that were listed incorrectly had been removed or were in the process of being certified by the district. Stockton’s curriculum specialist, who acts as the manager of college preparatory courses for the district, provided two different reasons for the errors, including a lack of understanding of the UC’s update and submission process when she initially took on the role in 2013 and the district’s process used to update UC’s college preparatory database. Although all districts misidentified some courses as certified, the number of misidentified courses and the resulting number of affected students in Stockton and Coachella demonstrate flawed district processes. If the districts did not correct the processes, they run the risk that there are a far greater number of misidentified courses affecting students at the remaining high schools in the districts.

Some Charter High Schools Employ Best Practices to Improve College Readiness That Other Districts and Schools in the State Could Also Use

The charter high schools we reviewed in the cities of Coachella, Stockton, and San Francisco, respectively, reported college preparatory completion rates that exceeded the results of the State, as we show in Table 6. Although charter schools in general have varied academic goals and missions, the three charter schools we selected each focus on preparing students to excel in college. Thus, during our audit period, they employed a variety of methods and practices to support their students in completing college preparatory coursework.

Table 6
Charter Schools Reported College Preparatory Completion Rates That Exceeded the State Average
2012–13 86%   39%
2013–14 55% 75 53% 42
2014–15 60 75 73 43

Sources: Unaudited data provided by Nova Academy, Gateway Charter High School, and Stockton Early College Academy.

* Nova Academy is an independent charter school.

Nova Academy and Stockton Early College Academy did not have a graduating class of seniors in 2012–13.

For example, all three charter high schools we reviewed require students to enroll in classes that stress skills needed to excel in both high school and college. In particular, Gateway Charter High School (Gateway) in the city of San Francisco makes use of a program called College Counseling that educates students about both four‑ and two‑year colleges similar to another program implemented throughout the district. As part of this program, Gateway designed its curriculum to create a culture that encourages students to attend college. Further, it takes its students to visit colleges, and it assists them with applications, financial aid, and test preparation for college admissions. Similarly, Nova Academy—an independent charter school operating in the city of Coachella—offers seminar courses that focus on the skills necessary for college admission. These seminars culminate with the students’ creating senior portfolios. Stockton Early College Academy concentrates its efforts on a high school success class that it provides to all incoming grade nine students. In this course, students learn goal‑setting, the use of planners, study skills, and note‑taking. All three charter schools reported that these courses are important parts of their best practices.

The three charter high schools also use some other best practices. For example, Gateway delivers targeted interventions by using a process it calls Response to Intervention. This process implements escalating levels of individual support to students who have truancy problems or fail to meet grade expectations. The support it provides to students who do not meet grade expectations varies based on student needs, but it may include alternatives such as tutoring, course‑specific conferences, or referrals for assessments of attention and learning difficulties. Similarly, Stockton Early College Academy stated that it offers support through staff‑supervised peer tutoring four days a week in both math and science. This program uses students as peer tutors, which bolsters support to students who receive tutoring while providing experience to the peer tutors.

Finally, Nova Academy offers several best practices, including a Summer Advantage program that prepares its incoming grade nine students by providing placement exams and activities related to math and English. Students at Nova Academy are also evaluated on a monthly basis for potential referral to an additional support program called LINK, which includes after school tutoring conducted two days a week. The school evaluated students for referral to LINK based on criteria including failure of any class or missing assignments in one or more classes. All of the programs noted in this section provide additional support to students and may increase college preparatory completion rates.

Districts Risk Leaving Students Behind When They Align Their Graduation Requirements With the College Preparatory Requirements, But Do Not Provide Additional Support

As we demonstrated in the previous sections, San Francisco’s completion rates have risen in recent years not only because it aligned its graduation requirements with the college preparatory coursework the State’s public university systems require, but also because it devoted significant resources to ensuring students had the support necessary to complete that coursework. As San Francisco’s efforts have shown, the alignment of graduation requirements with college preparatory coursework requirements coupled with the application of sufficient resources can yield significant successes for California’s college‑bound students.

San Francisco’s executive director of college and career readiness stated that the district aligned its graduation requirements with college preparatory coursework requirements in conjunction with carefully thought‑out and adequately funded systems of support. Beginning in fiscal year 2013–14 and continuing through fiscal year 2015–16, San Francisco dedicated $2.4 million to $2.6 million from the Public Education Enrichment Fund (PEEF)—a local fund that the city of San Francisco voters established in 2004—specifically toward college preparatory coursework support. It used these funds to expand course options for off track students by adding evening and after school courses and to support six full‑time and one half‑time positions for data analysis, counseling, and districtwide coordination. San Francisco increased its completion rate by 6 percent in the first year it devoted resources from the PEEF for college preparatory coursework support. San Francisco plans to continue spending these funds to support college preparatory coursework completion for the foreseeable future.

In addition to San Francisco, a number of other school districts throughout the State have also recently aligned their graduation requirements with the college preparatory coursework requirements, including both Los Angeles Unified School District (Los Angeles) and San Diego Unified School District. However, Los Angeles’ recent efforts to transition to college preparatory requirements as a condition of graduation demonstrates that unless the districts that make this transition also dedicate sufficient resources to assist students with the increased challenges these courses present, they may put many of their students at risk not only of failing to meet college preparatory requirements, but also of failing to graduate from high school.

Specifically, Los Angeles aligned its graduation requirements with the college preparatory coursework requirements beginning with the class of 2017. However, in 2015 the Board of Education of the city of Los Angeles (board) projected that only 37 percent of the class of 2017 would meet the requirement and thus graduate from high school. In response, the board renewed its commitment to college preparatory coursework completion by passing a resolution to focus on supporting those students most at risk of not successfully completing the sequence of college preparatory courses by expanding course access outside of the regular school day through summer school, community college dual enrollment, and online courses. In addition, the board directed Los Angeles’ Superintendent to eliminate the requirement for a C grade or better in college preparatory courses as a condition of graduation. Los Angeles also reported that it spent $10.6 million on an immediate intervention plan to provide students with various credit recovery options, tutorial services, tiered interventions, and training in college preparatory courses for all its teachers.


If the Legislature wishes to further prioritize students’ completion of college preparatory coursework, it should help ensure grade nine students are ready for the challenge of such work by devoting additional resources or reallocating existing resources for educational efforts beginning in kindergarten and continuing through grade eight, particularly to support math and English college readiness. Funding mechanisms similar to the College Readiness Block Grant could help better prepare kindergarten through grade eight students for the rigors of college preparatory coursework in high school.

To ensure that districts throughout the State comply with existing law, the Legislature should require districts to conduct analyses to verify that all high school students receive acceptable levels of access to the full range of college preparatory coursework. If the Legislature decides to require these analyses, it should also consider whether additional funding may be necessary to support the districts’ associated administrative costs. If implemented, the analyses should require the following components:

To increase students’ access to and completion rates of college preparatory coursework, districts should take the following actions:

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Chapter 2


Chapter Summary

Although the State has emphasized the importance of ensuring that high school graduates meet the admission standards for its public university systems, it has not established a clear statewide framework to make certain that school districts (districts) provide sufficient access to college preparatory coursework. Perhaps as a consequence, each of the three districts we reviewed have adopted different priorities and strategies related to college preparatory coursework completion, as we discuss in Chapter 1. By increasing the assistance they provide to districts, state and local entities could better ensure students have sufficient access to college preparatory coursework and consistent support to enable them to successfully complete that coursework. For example, despite the statutory responsibility that the state superintendent of public instruction (superintendent) has to assist districts, the California Department of Education (Education) did little to help them during our three‑year audit period. Further, county offices of education (county offices) could provide additional oversight and support to districts to ensure they offer sufficient access to college preparatory coursework. Although other entities are also involved in activities related to increasing college readiness, they have no oversight responsibilities.

In addition, local communities have little ability to assess districts’ success in preparing students for admission to the State’s public university systems because districts’ current method for reporting their outcomes related to college preparatory coursework activities is inadequate. State law requires districts to include specific metrics in their local control and accountability plans (accountability plans), such as college preparatory coursework completion rates (completion rates), to measure student achievement. However, the accountability plans for the three districts we reviewed were inaccurate, uninformative, and did not aid in our understanding of whether the districts met their goals of improved college readiness. Further, the districts reported outdated completion rates that did not measure the effectiveness of their recent actions, making it difficult to determine whether the actions they took in any given year had a direct effect upon their completion rates.

Education and County Offices Have Provided Little Oversight Related to College Preparatory Coursework

Under current law, no single state or local entity is specifically responsible for overseeing whether districts provide sufficient access to college preparatory coursework and adequately assist their students in completing that coursework. Many entities play a role in college preparatory coursework and accountability plans. However, of these entities, Education and county offices are best positioned to provide guidance and oversight to districts to improve college readiness—we recommend specific additional responsibilities for these entities in Figure 13. As of December 2016, neither of these entities had verified that high schools throughout the State provide students with sufficient access to college preparatory coursework. The lack of such an analysis demonstrates the need for additional oversight. Although entities such as the State Board of Education (State Board), the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence (Educational Collaborative), and the University of California (UC) play important roles in college preparedness, they have no oversight responsibilities.

Figure 13
Recommendations for Improving State and Local Responsibilities Related to College Preparatory Coursework

Figure 13 shows the responsibilities of various state and local agencies. Figure 13 also displays our recommendations for those agencies.

Sources: State law and information available from Education, State Board, UC, county offices of education, and school districts.

Education Provides Minimal Assistance to Districts to Ensure That Students Have Access to College Preparatory Coursework

State law places few specific requirements on Education related to college preparatory coursework. For example, state law requires the superintendent, who heads Education, to assist districts in ensuring that all public high school students have access to a core curriculum that meets the admission requirements of UC and the California State University. In addition, state law requires the superintendent to advise districts that maintain high schools about the importance of making readily available to each high school student the current list of courses offered by the student’s high school that are certified by UC as meeting admissions requirements.

Although Education asserts it has partnered with and supports a number of organizations that promote college readiness, it could only provide one instance in the three years from 2013 through 2016 in which it or the superintendent provided guidance or assistance to districts regarding college preparatory coursework. Specifically, in September 2016, after we began our audit, Education distributed a letter to county offices, school districts, charter schools, and high school principals to provide information and resources about Advanced Placement (AP) and other rigorous course options. Attached to the letter was a three‑page list that included 19 websites offering information about these course options. Education’s letter specified that it provided these resources only as a convenience, and that their inclusion did not imply its endorsement. Among these websites, the letter referred districts to the UC’s college preparatory course website.

We do not believe that one letter about AP courses with an attached list of web addresses constitutes adequate assistance to districts to ensure they provide sufficient access to college preparatory courses, especially given that—as we discuss in Chapter 1—each of the three districts we reviewed lacked data and processes to ensure they offered enough college preparatory courses. For Education to fulfill its statutory responsibility to assist districts, we believe it should develop recommended methods that districts could use to track the college preparatory courses they offer and to ensure they offer enough of these courses. These methods and processes could mirror those that we used when analyzing access at the three districts we reviewed.

According to Education’s administrator of the college preparation and postsecondary programs office (administrator), Education does not offer formal assistance to districts related to access to college preparatory coursework; instead, it directs the districts to UC. The administrator stated that Education could have a role in assessing the sufficiency of the access that districts provide; however, he explained that Education currently has no guidelines and no resources associated with this issue. Education is aware of some high schools that offer limited rigorous courses. For instance, in the September 2016 letter that the superintendent sent to the districts, Education recognized that 40 percent of high schools (515 of 1,302) offered AP courses in fewer than five subjects in 2014–15. However, the administrator believes that the state law is not clear about Education’s role in addressing this problem, in part because state law does not specify what the word assist means or entails.

Nonetheless, we expect Education—charged with oversight responsibility for California’s kindergarten through grade 12 public education—to have the expertise necessary to define what assisting districts means. Although the districts are ultimately responsible for ensuring they provide sufficient access for all their students, Education should—as state law requires—assist them in meeting this responsibility.

Although County Offices Are Not Specifically Responsible for Overseeing Access to College Preparatory Coursework, They Could Fulfill This Oversight Function

Although school districts, rather than county offices, are required by state law to ensure students’ access to college preparatory coursework, county offices are positioned well to assist with this responsibility because of the oversight functions they already perform. For example, state law requires county office superintendents to examine and approve district budgets. In addition, under state law, county offices are responsible for monitoring districts for sufficient textbooks, the condition of their facilities, and their teacher misassignments and vacancies. Further, county offices can help districts formulate new curricula and enter into agreements with them to provide training programs.

The county offices we spoke to seem willing to assume additional responsibilities related to overseeing course access. In fact, as we discuss in Chapter 1, one county office already provides services related to college preparatory coursework completion through contracts it entered into with an individual district. Specifically, Coachella Valley Unified School District (Coachella) entered into a contract with Riverside County Office of Education (Riverside County) to provide training to district and school personnel on implementing a systematic approach to college preparatory course management and transcript evaluation. The executive director of instructional services for Riverside County stated that county offices statewide could assist districts by advising them on how to verify the sufficiency of their college preparatory courses. Further, the assistant superintendent of educational services from the San Joaquin County Office of Education, of which Stockton Unified School District (Stockton) is a part, stated that county offices could offer in‑person visits to verify sufficient access to college preparatory coursework.

However, to provide specialized oversight and guidance to districts, county offices would need to obtain not just the legal ability to oversee districts but also the funding necessary to support these efforts. For example, Riverside County is currently able to provide services to Coachella only because of the funding it receives from the district as a result of the contract. Similarly, the assistant superintendent of educational services from the San Joaquin County Office of Education stated that if funding existed to support these efforts, county offices could offer help to districts regarding college preparatory coursework through in‑person visits to verify access to those courses.

State Law Does Not Require the State Board Education and the Educational Collaborative to Assess Whether Districts Give Students the Opportunity to Enroll in College Preparatory Courses

Although state law assigns the State Board the responsibility to adopt rules and regulations to govern kindergarten through grade 12 schools, it does not clearly assign it direct responsibility regarding college preparatory coursework. The State Board is responsible for approving academic content standards, for adopting statewide assessments and curriculum frameworks, and for establishing rules and regulations for the allocation of federal funds to districts. However, according to the State Board’s chief counsel, the State Board has no role related to the provision of college preparatory coursework nor is it responsible for providing direct assistance to districts to ensure students have access to college preparatory courses. Thus, the State Board would not be in a position to provide districts with specific guidance on standards or mechanisms to ensure that students have sufficient access to college preparatory coursework.

The Educational Collaborative is a public agency the Legislature created in conjunction with its adoption of the local control funding formula (funding formula) in 2013. The Educational Collaborative’s purpose is to advise and assist districts, county superintendents of schools, and charter schools in achieving the goals they establish in their accountability plans. According to the Educational Collaborative’s director of training and outreach, the agency is in the pilot stage and thus had not fully implemented services statewide as of December 2016. He stated that the Educational Collaborative has not established a particular date by which the pilot stage will end and that it could continue until 2018–19. The director of training and outreach asserted that the Educational Collaborative could participate in the districts’ college readiness efforts by providing trainings and surveys during annual workshops and by creating professional learning community networks in which districts could obtain peer‑to‑peer help. However, he also explained that he is not aware of district demand for assistance related to college preparatory coursework issues or college readiness.

UC Has Substantially Increased the Rate at Which It Approves Courses

As discussed in the Introduction, UC is responsible for certifying courses as college preparatory. In the four years from 2012–13 through 2015–16, UC has improved its process of approving college preparatory courses and has increased the percentage of new courses it approved from 57 percent in 2012–13 to 90 percent in 2015–16. During that same period, UC also substantially lowered the average time it took to issue certification decisions from 50 days to 14 days. In addition, in 2015 UC changed the format for course submissions and, according to UC’s associate director for undergraduate admissions, the new format reduced the length of most course proposals it receives from 10 to 25 pages to about five pages. We asked 11 districts whether they had any trouble getting courses approved: nine districts reported no problems and two experienced minor issues that were not related to UC’s performance in approving courses.

UC also provided outreach to districts and schools during 2012–13 through 2014–15. State law requests, but does not require, UC to assist each district that maintains a high school in order to ensure that school administrators and educators understand how to submit courses for approval, have processes for developing and submitting courses, and maintain accurate lists of courses. To meet that request, UC maintains a website that provides guidance on submitting courses for approval and annually updating course lists. Further, to help districts keep accurate course lists across their multiple high schools, the associate director of undergraduate admissions indicates that UC will further enhance its web portal in February 2017, allowing districts to consolidate courses taught at different high schools into one version of that course. UC also holds a variety of events each year that provide guidance on college preparatory coursework requirements and the course submission process. The associate director of undergraduate admissions confirmed that UC will continue to offer this guidance in the future.

The Accountability Plans Make It Difficult for Communities to Assess Districts’ Progress Toward Improved College Preparedness

The accountability plan process requires each school district to do the following:

Source: California State Auditor's review of information obtained from state law.

When it adopted the new funding formula in 2013, the State created a process for monitoring the performance of local educational agencies, including districts, through two key oversight elements. The first element is the three‑year accountability plans that districts must complete and update annually. In addition to objectives and strategies, the accountability plans must list specific actions the districts intend to take to achieve those objectives. Further, state law requires the districts’ accountability plans to use certain metrics—such as college preparatory completion rates—to measure the students’ achievements. As the text box describes, county offices must approve the districts’ accountability plan. The second oversight element state law requires is an evaluation tool that the State Board approved in 2016 that will assist districts in evaluating their strengths, weaknesses, and areas that require improvement. The evaluation tool will also help identify districts in need of technical assistance or intervention.

The college readiness portions of the accountability plans for the three districts we reviewed were inaccurate and uninformative. Further, the three accountability plans were not useful in determining whether the districts had increased students’ completion rates or whether the steps they had taken to improve college readiness had positive effects.

The Accountability Plans We Reviewed Contained Numerous Errors and Could Not Be Used to Assess Completion Rates

When reviewing accountability plans, we found that districts reported incorrect data or data that were not useful in determining whether the districts met their completion rate goals. For example, Stockton reported a completion rate of 9.9 percent in its 2014–15 accountability plan—a 10 percent drop from its 2011–12 baseline. However, Stockton acknowledged to us that this completion rate was incorrect and was the result of an internal data processing error; in fact, its actual completion rate was closer to 20 percent. Moreover, Stockton included conflicting information in three different sections of its 2014–15 accountability plan update: its metric results showed that it was not meeting its targeted completion rate of 24.8 percent; it stated elsewhere in the plan that it had successfully met its goal of ensuring that every student would graduate ready for college or a career; and it stated in yet another section of the plan that it was too early to determine if its actions related to college preparatory coursework had been effective. Stockton also admitted in the same document that its accountability plan included circular references and included extremely vague descriptions of its planned actions.

The accountability plans for the other two districts also were inaccurate and vague, making it difficult for a reader to determine what, if any, progress they had made in increasing students’ completion rates. Coachella reported a completion rate of 27.5 percent—0.5 percent less than its goal—yet also reported that it met or exceeded its planned outcome. In San Francisco Unified School District’s 2015–16 accountability plan, it stated that it planned to increase its previous year’s completion rate by 1 percent, but it did not include the previous year’s completion rate in the accountability plan. Coachella and San Francisco had various perspectives regarding the issues we identified with the accountability plans, including difficulty in identifying which resources the district used on specific actions and problems with establishing realistic targets and metrics. Because of staff turnover, Stockton did not know the basis for staff decisions related to accountability plans.

In many instances, we could not find a clear link between the college readiness goals Stockton and Coachella articulated in their accountability plans and the actions included in the plans they intended to take to achieve those goals. State law requires districts to describe in their accountability plans the specific actions they will perform during each year to achieve their stated goals. However, many of the 17 actions and services Stockton attached to its college and career readiness goal in its 2014–15 accountability plan did not directly relate to either college or career readiness. These actions included increasing anti‑bullying efforts and adding district behavioral support staff. Moreover, combining college readiness goals with other goals makes it difficult to assess what activities will implement each element of the goal. For example, in its 2014–15 accountability plan, Coachella stated that its goal was to “increase student achievement and other pupil outcomes to prepare all students for college, career, and citizenship in the 21st century.” One of the related activities was purchasing equipment for its kindergarten through grade eight physical education program. When districts use overly broad goals or include activities unrelated or only marginally related to their goals, they impede the ability of stakeholders to determine which actions affect their completion rates.

County offices could provide districts with additional guidance and oversight to make their districts’ accountability plans more effective, but a statutory change might be necessary to give the county offices increased authority. State law currently requires county offices to ensure that the districts’ accountability plans adhere to the template, that their budgets include sufficient funds to implement the actions and strategies in their plans, and that the plans identify the expenditures for unduplicated students—English learners, students who are classified as eligible for free or reduced price meals, or students in foster care. However, state law does not require county offices to evaluate the content of districts’ accountability plans to ensure they are accurate or useful, nor does it require the districts to implement county offices’ suggested changes.

One county office we visited has taken an active role in assisting one of its districts in completing the accountability plan template and reviewing the content of its plan. Specifically, Riverside County performed a comprehensive assessment of Coachella’s 2015–16 and 2016–17 accountability plans and made suggestions for improvement. For example, Riverside County recommended Coachella consider including completion rate targets for unduplicated students and include appropriate actions to close those achievement gaps. In its 2016–17 accountability plan, Coachella implemented the recommendation and included separate targets and actions for unduplicated students.

Conversely, the assistant superintendent of educational services of the San Joaquin County Office of Education explained that the county office helps districts focus on the eight state priorities outlined in state law but does not assist in setting districts’ goals, creating any other content related to the accountability plan, or overseeing the quality of the district’s accountability plans.

The Districts We Reviewed Reported Outdated Completion Rates That Did Not Measure the Effectiveness of Their Actions

The districts we reviewed reported completion rates in their accountability plans that were from prior years and thus did not correspond with the activities and services the districts had implemented to improve students’ college preparedness. For example, the three districts we reviewed developed their 2014–15 accountability plans using either 2011–12 or 2012–13 completion rates or did not include a baseline year. In the updates to the 2014–15 plans, they reported 2013–14 completion rates when attempting to measure whether they had met the stated goals of their 2014–15 accountability plans. However, because the activities the districts reported performing in the 2014–15 accountability plan took place after 2013–14, we cannot attribute those activities performed to an increase or decrease in their completion rates. To gauge the effectiveness of activities meant to increase college preparedness, districts should use the outcome data that corresponds with the time the activities took place.

The districts use prior years’ data because Education provides the districts with the annual college preparatory completion data nearly a year after the end of the school year. Each year, districts submit data between October and December, including college preparatory completion data from the prior school year. The administrator of Education’s data reporting office stated that Education begins compiling the data in late January or early February and that the process typically takes a minimum of two to three months. Further, the timing is highly dependent on other competing priorities. Education typically publishes the information for use by the districts in April. State law requires the districts to issue their accountability plans to county offices for approval no later than July 1, which means that districts have a maximum of two months to amend their plans with the new information and submit the revised documents to stakeholders. For instance, Coachella’s director of state and federal projects said that Coachella’s district board approved the accountability plan in June and sent it for approval to the county office in July. Further emphasizing the districts’ time constraints, San Francisco’s executive director of budget services asserted that stakeholder engagement begins earlier and earlier each year. Thus, districts are using outdated completion rates because of the short window between when Education issues graduation data and the districts’ boards adopt their accountability plans.

The State Board has revised the 2017–18 accountability plan template, which will partially alleviate the difficulty of evaluating the effectiveness of the district’s actions. The State Board modified the accountability plan template to include the goals, activities, and outcomes that span a three‑year window. The modified template will partially address the issue of outdated metrics by including at least one year of completion rates that pertain to the actions taken in the corresponding time period.


To increase college preparatory completion rates, the Legislature should require Education or another state entity to coordinate statewide college readiness efforts focusing on increasing college preparatory completion rates.

To comply with existing law and ensure that students receive sufficient access to college preparatory coursework, Education should provide training and guidance to districts throughout the State on the creation and application of appropriate district‑ and school‑level access analyses.

To ensure that high school graduates are eligible for admission to the State’s public university systems, the Legislature should require county offices to monitor districts to determine whether they offer students adequate access to college preparatory coursework.

To ensure districts’ accountability plans are accurate and informative, the Legislature should require county offices to review districts’ accountability plans and monitor the actions the districts take to implement the goals in those plans.

We conducted this audit under the authority vested in the California State Auditor by Section 8543 et seq. of the California Government Code and according to generally accepted government auditing standards. Those standards require that we plan and perform the audit to obtain sufficient, appropriate evidence to provide a reasonable basis for our findings and conclusions based on our audit objectives specified in the Scope and Methodology section of the report. We believe that the evidence obtained provides a reasonable basis for our findings and conclusions based on our audit objectives.

Respectfully submitted,

State Auditor

February 28, 2017

Kathleen Klein Fullerton, MPA, Audit Principal
Aaron E. Fellner, MPP
Nick B. Phelps, JD
Inna A. Prigodin, CFE
Cecilia White, MPPA

IT Audits:
Michelle J. Baur, CISA, Audit Principal
Ben Ward, CISA, ACDA
Sarah Rachael Black, MBA, CISA
Ryan P. Coe, MBA, CISA
Grant Volk, MA, CFE

Legal Counsel:
J. Christopher Dawson, Sr. Staff Counsel

For questions regarding the contents of this report, please contact
Margarita Fernández, Chief of Public Affairs, at 916.445.0255.


2 Although San Francisco students must complete the full sequence of college preparatory coursework, they only need to receive a grade of D or better in these classes to graduate. However, to be eligible for admission to the State’s public university systems, students must receive a grade of C‑ or better in these classes. Go back to text

3 Each cohort is composed of students who were enrolled in the ninth grade in a given district for the first time in 2009–10, took a class for credit at a high school within the respective audited district, and received a valid mark. Subsequent cohorts reflected a similar methodology for 2010–11 and 2011–12. Students remained in the cohort until they left the district. Go back to text

4 UC and CSU require applicants to receive a C or better in all college preparatory courses to be eligible for admission. Because UC and CSU do not calculate minuses or pluses (such as a C‑ or C+), a student who receives a C‑ would still be eligible for admission. Go back to text

5 There are several other ways to validate the foreign language requirement, including certification by a high school principal and assessment by a college or university. Go back to text

6 We used the University of California’s (UC) definition for underrepresented minorities. Specifically, the UC considers underrepresented minorities to be Chicanos/Latinos, African Americans, and American Indians. Go back to text

7 We did not include students who identified as white or Asian in Coachella because the subgroup is made up of fewer than 50 students. State law instructs Education to report completion rates only for subgroups whose population exceeds 50 students. Go back to text

8 Although San Francisco students must complete the full sequence of college preparatory coursework, they only need to receive a grade of D or better in these classes to graduate. However, to be eligible for admission to the State’s public university systems, students must receive a grade of C‑ or better in these classes. Go back to text

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