In 2011, the school board took a bold step toward making sure all students in San Diego Unified graduate high school prepared to enter college. Too many students, especially poor and minority students, were graduating without the courses they needed to get into University of California and California State University schools.

So trustees decided that every student must pass a series of college-prep classes, known as A-G courses, in order to graduate high school.

While the new graduation requirements take effect this year, the conversation has been ongoing since 2009, when counselors had to break the news to seniors at schools like Lincoln and Crawford that despite their best efforts, they wouldn’t be eligible to enter UC or CSU schools because their high schools failed to offer them the classes colleges required for admission.

But after five years of work, a new study shows that roughly 1,000 students could be denied a diploma this year. Those most likely to fall short are, in large part, students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

In other words, the very students the graduation policies were designed to help are those being left out of the success.

The school board passed a resolution in 2009 stating all high schools needed to offer college-going classes. A couple years later, they upped the ante: Starting in 2016, all students must earn at least a D in A-G courses in order to graduate high school. (A-G courses only count for UC/CSU schools if students earn a C or better, but the district didn’t want to set the bar too high, so it allowed students to pass with D’s).

The new graduation requirements aren’t radically different from the old ones. But they require two years of the same foreign language, which is new, and three years of math, one of which must be intermediate Algebra or its Common Core equivalent. Those two courses, along with English, have become the three biggest sticking points for the class of 2016.

The UCSD study is the most comprehensive picture yet of how well students are responding to the new grad requirements. Researchers analyzed student transcripts between 2005 and August 2015, paying particular attention to recent trends.

Julian Betts, a UCSD economics professor and lead author of the report, said his team’s longitudinal approach allowed them to make predictions with a relatively high degree of certainty.

If the forecast from UCSD’s San Diego Education Research Alliance holds true, San Diego Unified’s 2014 graduation rate of 87.5 percent could drop to 72 percent this year.

Of the 28 percent who are off track: more than half of all English-learners and those with special needs.

The study isn’t all bad news for the district. Comparing the class of 2016 with the class of 2014, roughly 10 percent more – 650 students – earned C’s or better in the courses they need to get into UC and CSU schools.

And there’s evidence the district is now offering more language classes in middle schools, so students could potentially take care of the A-G foreign language requirement before they enter ninth grade.

But students at schools with high concentrations of poverty are being disproportionately left behind.

In 2014, only 39 percent of students at Lincoln and Crawford, respectively, were eligible to enter UC/CSU schools. Compare that with 78 percent of students at La Jolla High and 85 percent of students at Scripps Ranch.

Ron Rode, a senior district manager and data guru, said he has no quarrel with USCD’s data, but stressed that district staff members have been moving quickly this year, enrolling students in online remediation courses and expanding summer school options so more students can graduate on time. The data presented by UCSD, Rode said, does not reflect the work that has been happening in schools this year.

District staffers are still analyzing their own data and expect to have a report ready sometime in April.

Trustee Richard Barrera points to the additional 650 students who are graduating ready for UC/CSU schools as proof that the policy change is doing exactly what the school board hoped: It’s exposing more students to a rigorous, college-going curriculum.

“We need to take into account that these sort of projections only represent one point in time,” Barrera said of the study. “The overwhelming majority of these students who are considered off-track will get caught up. I’m confident 90 percent of students will graduate this year meeting A-G graduation requirements.”

Betts said graduating 90 percent of students by June would be a “miracle” – one for which the district should be applauded if they’re able to pull off.

We won’t know the degree to which the district has been successful in its A-G mission until next fall, when the 2016 graduation rate is officially tallied.

But looking at numbers from San Francisco, which started requiring A-G courses in 2014, could provide a window into what awaits San Diego Unified.

There, the overall graduation rate dropped only slightly after they made A-G courses a requirement for high school graduation – from 81.7 percent in 2012-2013 to 79.9 percent in 2013-2014.

But the graduation rate fell more dramatically for black and Latino students. Dropout rates for those students rose significantly that year, from 13.6 percent to 22.4 percent among black students and 16.5 percent to 24.2 percent among Latino students. San Diego Unified could expect a similar dip.

According to the study, “Fewer than two-thirds of students in the following groups are projected to complete the coursework by June 2016: students whose parents’ highest degree is a high school diploma or less, Hispanic students and African-American students.”

The study also raises an unresolved policy issue. California education code calls for districts to establish alternative pathways to a diploma, one that might include more of a focus on career and technical education instead of college prep.

Currently, the district has only one track to graduation. And Barrera said he’d be hard-pressed to support a change.

“I would approach the possibility with a high degree of skepticism that we would be creating two-tiered diplomas, one for the students who we decide are ‘college-material’ and watered-down requirements for those we think are not,” Barrera said.

In fall 2014, when the public got its first glimpse of how many students from the class of 2016 could fall short, roughly 3,000 students were not on track to graduate.

Cheryl Hibbeln, the district’s high school resources officer who has led the charge of getting students out the door by June 2016, said at the time the entire situation highlighted a “systemic failure”: Too many middle and high schools were disconnected, and too many students were enrolled in classes that wouldn’t help them graduate.

Since then, district and school leaders have been triaging students, enrolling them in summer school and online classes.

But the deadline is looming and the stakes are high.

Because the decision will reflect on district leadership – not just on the school board who decided on the policy, but also on Superintendent Cindy Marten – a falling graduation rate is as much a political issue as an academic one.

Graduation rates are a city’s most visible measure for the quality of its public education system.

Owing to a lag in standardized tests, Marten has faced few objective measures for how well she’s leading California’s second largest district. That will change by next fall, when the class of 2016’s graduation rates are finalized.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the dates of the transcripts analyzed in the study. 

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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