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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



Our review of three school districts’ efforts related to college preparedness highlighted the following:

Results in Brief

In recent years, California’s state and local educational agencies have increasingly focused on the importance of preparing the State’s students for college. The Public Policy Institute of California projects that 38 percent of California’s jobs will require at least a bachelor’s degree by 2030, while population and education trends suggest that only 33 percent of working‑age adults in California will have a bachelor’s degree at that time—a shortfall of 1.1 million college graduates. To fill this gap, the State will need to significantly increase the number of college‑ready students who graduate from its high schools each year. One measure of college readiness is a high school student’s completion of the college preparatory courses necessary for admission to the University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU). In 2014–15 less than half of high school students statewide completed the college preparatory coursework that would qualify them to enroll in a UC or CSU school upon high school graduation.

Of the three districts whose efforts to improve college preparedness we reviewed—San Francisco Unified School District (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 and 30 percent of Coachella’s students successfully completed college preparatory coursework. In contrast, 69 percent of students in San Francisco completed college preparatory coursework. Although a number of factors contributed to the differences in the three districts’ success in preparing students for college, San Francisco’s prioritization of college preparatory coursework completion appears to have a significant impact. In 2010 San Francisco aligned its graduation coursework requirements with the minimum coursework requirements necessary for admission to UC and CSU.

Completion rates at the three districts we reviewed were also heavily influenced by students’ abilities to complete coursework on a prescribed track beginning in grade nine. Falling off this track significantly decreases students’ chances of completing college preparatory coursework. The vast 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 and only 10 percent and 5 percent of those students completed college preparatory coursework.

At each of the three districts, we found that of the students who fell off track for completing the necessary coursework, up to 80 percent did so during grade nine, indicating that districts should ensure that students enroll in and compete college preparatory coursework beginning in their first year of high school. Furthermore, an average of only 9 percent of the students who fell off track in grade nine in the three districts we reviewed graduated with the coursework necessary to gain admission to the State’s public university systems. Moreover, 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. The percentage of grade nine students who were not prepared for the rigors of college preparatory coursework suggests that equipping kindergarten through grade eight students with the necessary skills and knowledge is critical to ensuring that they will graduate from high school having met the coursework requirements for admission to the State’s public university systems.

Although our analysis suggests that our selected schools were able to provide students with sufficient access to college preparatory coursework during the years that we reviewed, we encountered significant barriers to assessing students’ levels of access because of the limited data the districts maintained. For example, Coachella’s business practices have been to mark courses which ended prior to 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. Moreover, the districts we reviewed do not conduct analyses that demonstrate that they provided all students access to college preparatory coursework. However, our analysis of available documentation indicates that access did not significantly hamper students’ ability to complete required college preparatory courses.

In addition, all three districts we reviewed showed achievement gaps in completing college preparatory coursework between certain subgroups of students. Specifically, in San Francisco, underrepresented minorities’ completion rates ranged from 26 percent to 41 percent, whereas white and Asian students’ completion rates ranged from 72 percent to 78 percent. Similarly, Stockton’s completion rates for underrepresented minorities ranged from 17 percent to 19 percent, whereas completion rates for white and Asian students ranged from 25 percent to 29 percent.1 However, other subgroups of students—such as students who are eligible to receive free or reduced price meals at school, English learners, and youth in foster care—generally fared better in San Francisco than Coachella and Stockton. In particular, San Francisco’s completion rate for these students is three times that of similar students in Stockton and two times that of students in Coachella.

Our analysis suggests that students attending school districts that establish higher student expectations, coupled with relevant tools and student support, are more likely to meet those expectations. Although all three districts we reviewed have adopted best practices to support their students during their high school careers, San Francisco in particular employs a variety of tools that have likely contributed to its high completion rates. In addition to aligning its graduation coursework requirements with coursework requirements necessary for admission to UC and CSU, San Francisco devoted significant resources and support to help its students succeed. This support includes robust credit recovery options, including options to repeat failed classes through summer school and after school, for students who do not meet requirements. San Francisco also implemented systematic, districtwide identification of students who are at risk of not meeting coursework requirements and then intervenes by meeting with those students and notifying their parents. Although Stockton and Coachella offered their own best practices, opportunities remain for improvement, particularly with regard to identifying and providing support for students who are struggling to meet college preparatory requirements.

Further, the California Department of Education (Education) and county offices of education could provide additional oversight, support, and guidance to districts to ensure they provide sufficient access to college preparatory coursework and adequately assist their students in completing those courses. Although each of the three districts we visited stressed the importance of college preparatory coursework completion, no clear statewide framework exists for ensuring that districts meet that goal. State law requires the superintendent of public instruction, who heads Education, to assist districts to ensure that all public high school students have access to a core curriculum that meets the admission requirements of UC and CSU. However, Education currently provides only minimal assistance to districts: over the last four years, the only guidance it has offered was one letter.

Selected Recommendations

If the Legislature wishes to further prioritize students’ completion of college preparatory coursework, it should ensure grade nine students are ready for the rigors of such work by devoting additional resources or reallocating existing resources for educational efforts beginning in kindergarten and continuing through grade eight.

To increase students’ completion rates, districts should take the following actions:

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

Agency Comments

Education did not agree with our recommendation, but stated it would continue to provide assistance to districts as required by state law.

Stockton stated it is working to improve services to students in all areas, including access to and successful completion of college preparatory courses. Coachella stated that it will continue to build personnel capacity and programs to help foster improvements in both student achievement and system processes in support of students. San Francisco did not provide a response to the audit.


1 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

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