Remediation Rates: The New Graduation Rate?

With graduation season upon us, rising graduation rates across California are again a prime topic for discussion.  Graduation rates have increased dramatically in LA County from 2010 to 2016, rising from 71% to 81% over the six year period.  LAUSD’s graduation rates rose even more significantly during that time, from 62% to 77%, though still below the statewide graduation rate of 83%.  The L.A. Compact, a cross-sector partnership including the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, local government agencies, higher education institutions, and nonprofits, published a report in May 2017 commending LAUSD for substantial progress toward the goal of universal graduation.

While high school graduates achieve stronger economic, civic, and health outcomes than dropouts, a high school diploma alone is usually not sufficient to earn a living wage.  Most jobs commanding a middle class wage require some college, at the very minimum.  For a high school graduate to be minimally eligible for admission into the California State University (CSU) and University of California (UC) systems, they must complete a series of 15 courses with a grade C or better, known as the A-G curriculum.  These courses are called “A-G” courses because of the letter each subject is assigned: “a” is for History/Social Science, “b” is for English, and so on.

In 2005, the LAUSD Board of Education passed a resolution requiring the Class of 2016  to complete the A-G curriculum with a D grade or better to graduate.  The minimum grade was originally set to rise to a C grade or better for the Class of 2017, but is now held steady at a D grade minimum.  The intent of the resolution was to ensure all students had equitable access to this sequence and therefore eligibility for college admission.  However, in the fall of 2015, the district found that only half of seniors  were on track to graduate in the spring of 2016 in accordance with the new standards.  The district scrambled to roll out a $15 million credit recovery program that placed seniors in special classes after school and during breaks to make up classes previously failed.  As a result, the graduation rate rose to 77%, rather than dropping to around 50% as originally projected.

The credit recovery program has received widespread scrutiny since its inception.  On its face, it is difficult to believe so many students were able to make up previously failed course work while keeping up with the demands of regular coursework.  Forty-two percent of LA Unified’s 2016 graduates re-took a class they had previously failed or participated in credit recovery work.  Most of the credit recovery work is required to be completed online or over a shorter period of time than the regular class.  A Los Angeles Times article published in August 2016 quoted Pedro Noguera, director of the Center for the Study of School Transformation at UCLA: “I think there’s always room for healthy skepticism…When we see kids completing three years of high school in a year through credit recovery, that should raise alarms for people. Are these kids actually getting an education that’s going to prepare them for something?”

At the same time, LAUSD has achieved significant gains above both the county and the state in terms of the overall percentage of graduating seniors that meet UC/CSU eligibility.  In 2015, 52% of LAUSD graduates met the A-G course requirements with a C minimum, versus 47% of graduates in the county and 43% in the state.  That is a significant improvement over 2011, when only 37% of LAUSD graduates met the requirement.

Are the higher graduation rates and CSU/UC eligibility rates to be believed as a sign of progress?  A critical clue lies in the reported remediation rates in higher education.  Approximately 80% of community college students and approximately 40% of CSU students do not test proficient in both math and english upon enrolling.  These students must enroll in remedial courses, delaying time to completion and adding to the overall cost of their education.  With such significant catch-up work to do in addition to courses that actually count toward a degree, does it matter if the student technically graduated and met the minimum A-G requirement?

To better diagnose which schools are graduating students that are truly college ready, the state should track the percentage of graduating student who need remedial help in college.  From there, schools that are challenged in graduating college ready students can be pinpointed and policies that will raise educational quality can be adopted.