San Diego Unified wants to move heaven and earth to get its students on track to graduate under strict new course requirements.

It’s making some big changes toward that goal, like creating an early warning system to flag students who might be falling behind and tapping a former principal to comb through schools’ schedules and make sure all principals know exactly what classes they’ll need to offer to get kids out the door on time. Superintendent Cindy Marten said this week that keeping graduation rates high is one of her top priorities.

But some of the moves the district is making could open the door to subtly watering down the standards and creating end-arounds to ensure they’re met.

Passing With Ds

The original intent of the new standards was to get more kids ready to enter UC and CSU schools.

But A-G courses count toward San Diego Unified graduation requirements if students pass with Ds, as long as their overall GPAs are 2.0 or better. In order to count toward UC and CSU schools’ entrance requirements, however, students must earn at least a C in these classes.

In an October school board meeting, trustee John Lee Evans said the district considered this when they first adopted the standards. They wanted to raise the bar, but no so high that students couldn’t possibly meet the demands. So they struck a kind of middle ground.

School board members do, however, consider it a success that students are at least exposed to college-going material, even if they don’t ace the course. That’s why at this week’s state of the district address, Beiser proudly announced that next year students will graduate under more rigorous standards than ever.

Which Classes Count

The latest A-G report found a good many students were falling short of two years of a foreign language, a grad requirement.

The district has said this requirement isn’t necessarily helpful or realistic for some student groups. Why have students complete two years of a world language, if they already speak Spanish or Vietnamese at home?

That’s why the district plans to allow English learners to essentially test out of this requirement. Students can also take American Sign Language to fulfill this component, which might be more helpful for students with special needs.

On one level, these changes are logical. They’re not necessarily any easier or less beneficial for students. But they also open the door to gently dulling other standards.

Grade Inflation

The biggest risk posed by the new requirements might also be the most insidious.

A 2013 study by the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan think tank, warned that an unintended consequence of the higher standards might be that students who’d otherwise fail might have their grades bumped to Ds.

This could help protect graduation rates, but it could also cause bigger problems. If students are allowed to take intermediate or advanced courses without mastering the basics, they could become frustrated and create a distraction to other students in class, the report warned.

If grade inflation did occur, it wouldn’t be the first time.

Cheryl Hibbeln, who this year was promoted from principal to high school resources officer, said she’s seen this happen at San Diego Unified schools in the past. At the time, she was able to catch it by comparing students’ grades to how they were doing on other measures, like GPA or their scores on the high school exit exam.

A more comprehensive data reporting system, which is rolling out districtwide, will help principals, counselors and area superintendents stay vigilant and keep grade inflation from becoming a problem, she said.

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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