You’re going to hear a lot this week about students who aren’t on track to graduate.

Data released by San Diego Unified on Friday reveals that there are a lot of them: A quarter of the current senior class is not on track to meet new graduation requirements in place for the class of 2016.

Indeed, the district has its hands full helping students adjust to those requirements and a spate of other new stuff: On top of the new so-called A-G requirements, students are working with new Common Core curriculum and tests. A new SAT test is looming, too.

I talked with a handful of students and teachers at University City High about all the new requirements. Those conversations revealed that the new system has taken a toll even on those who are on track.

The new requirements include four years of English, three years of math, history/social science and science, including a higher level of math than what was required before, and two years of the same foreign language.

University City High School senior Alison White said the new graduation requirements have squeezed most of the fun out of her schedule. She’d like to take more electives, but felt pressure to take Advanced Placement classes instead, which carry weighted grades and can help boost grade point averages.

“It’s so competitive to get into colleges,” she said. She and several classmates said they’re not getting enough sleep between all of their homework, completing college applications, plus work and community service obligations.

Pressure to take AP classes isn’t new, of course, but the new requirements can put additional pressure on students who aren’t as strong in math or science. If they are forced to re-take one of those classes to meet the new bar, that’s one fewer opportunity to explore something like music or journalism that they might actually be interested in. Taking AP classes, which are weighted, can make up for a lower grade in a math or science.

White said schools are “really pushing math and science and I have a more creative and artistic mind. Having to take more of those classes puts more stress on me.”

This year’s seniors were also the first to take the new Common Core-aligned assessment, called the Smarter Balanced test. Student results were mailed home last week after much delay by the state and included a letter from Superintendent Cindy Marten admonishing parents to remember that the test is only one indicator of a child’s progress.

Student reviews of the test, given last spring, aren’t encouraging.

“It was not user-friendly or intuitive,” White said. Students had complaints about taking the test on a computer, which not only had glitches, but was a big adjustment for students who have always been tested on paper. Taylor McCabe, a University City High School senior, said the features that were supposed to be available to help students complete the test didn’t function properly, like the embedded highlighter and calculator. “Taking it on a computer was horrific,” said Cameron Doyle, also a UCHS senior.

The students I talked with gave varying reviews of the Common Core-aligned curriculum. That appears to depend largely on teachers. Susan Bristol, a University City High School English teacher, has been teaching critical thinking skills all along, and there are explanations all over her classroom about the Common Core State Standards. The changes are almost unnoticeable for her students.

But it’s been a rocky transition elsewhere. “They’re still working out the kinks” in math classes in particular, White said. “They’re trying to make math into more than it is. Math is pretty black and white, but they’re making it gray, which is more confusing.”

For students who want to make up a grade by retaking a class, it means less room in their schedule for a class in which they might be more interested and successful. Among the ways San Diego Unified plans to address this are by giving students access to project-based learning, career technical classes that are UC-approved and offering ethnic studies. The district also plans to place intervention counselors at five yet-to-be-named high-priority schools.

“I do see fewer students able to take electives,” Bristol said. “Many of my journalism students, who would normally stay in journalism all four years, have had to skip 10th grade year due to having no room for an elective.”

Doyle said for her, high school has been all work and no play. “The only real memory of high school I have is trying to get into college.”

Then there are looming changes to the SAT, which will affect current high school juniors most. The college entrance exam has been redesigned to reflect the Common Core, to which juniors enrolled in San Diego Unified schools have had little exposure. The first incarnation of the new test was rolled out this month when the practice version, called the PSAT, was offered to ninth through 11th graders.

Many students are rushing to take the current version of the SAT before its last administration date in January because there are more practice materials available and more is known about that test than the redesigned one.

The SAT is like “teaching a goldfish to climb a tree,” McCabe said. “Everyone is different, there shouldn’t be one test for everyone.”

The online learning website Khan Academy is offering free online preparation for the new SAT, but some students have decided to switch to the ACT, an alternative test that is also accepted by colleges for admissions.

“It’s just so different than when I was in school,” Bristol said. “It’s so competitive that kids really can’t be kids anymore. They spend all their time studying because they take so many APs, and often the rest of the time is taken up by a sport and sleeping. And that’s it.”

Christie Ritter

Christie Ritter is a freelance writer for Voice of San Diego, author of four books and a former newspaper reporter. She is a graduate of Clairemont High,...

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