In Partnership with 74

Commentary: How LAUSD set its graduation requirements

Guest contributor | June 7, 2017

Your donation will help us produce journalism like this. Please give today.

David Tokofsky (Courtesy photo)

By David Tokofsky

Now that the dust of the school board election has settled and the mailers are in the recycling bin, the tough job of setting policy for the nation’s second-largest school district lies ahead for the new and returning members of LAUSD’s Board of Education. It is always good to ground policy on accurate historical understanding, so let’s get the record straight before moving forward.

Last month, guest commentator Evelyn Aleman Macias wrote here that:

“In 2015, some of our school board members voted to lower the student requirements for A-G college prep coursework from a C grade to a D. As a result, more than half of LAUSD’s 2016 graduates were not eligible for [California State Universities (CSUs) or University of California admissions (UCs)]. Our own elected officials failed our children.”

This is incorrect. Only the top nine percent of a graduating class can matriculate to a UC, and CSUs only admit the top 30 percent of in-state graduates. It is the California university system that requires students to get a C or better in their “A-G” required courses. No board action could affect whether struggling high school seniors would get accepted to college. 

What really happened: The board raised graduation requirements so that resources were spread more equitably and all students could register for the prep courses required by CSU and UCs. Finding that some students struggled with the more rigorous coursework, the Board of Education then decided to maintain the minimum requirement of a D grade to pass so that students would not be deprived of a high school diploma and the ability to find work that requires a diploma. Certainly beats “credit recovery” without any deep content.

How did we get here?

Over a decade ago, LAUSD graduation rates were lower than suburban areas and numerous schools in lower-income neighborhoods did not even offer all the classes needed to fulfill the A-G requirements.  So parents and community organizations began a bullhorn campaign to achieve equity in LAUSD schools: Every student, no matter what school she or he attended, should be offered the A-G required courses. The district heard the call — and responded! The way to ensure that students enrolled in and completed these classes was to make them graduation requirements. Thus demand rose at all schools and the requisite resources were dispersed. But deep planning does not come from bullhorn-driven policy initiatives.

In the meantime, retention and graduation rates jumped over 20 points. But is it realistic to expect that the kids who would have been dropouts in years past will all be getting Cs or better in college prep courses?

The answer for now, as it turns out, is no. Some kids are managing to meet the A-G requirement but struggling with the materials. The board was faced with a dilemma: Having met the equity demands of our parent activists back when today’s graduates were in kindergarten, should these students be deprived of a diploma when they stayed in school and signed up for the A-G requirements but got even just a single D grade?

Of course not. THAT would be failing our students. So having raised the course requirements, they maintained the grade requirement, so that kids who were doing it right and trying hard could still get the diploma and look for a job. Board members George McKenna, Mónica García, and President Steve Zimmer drove the sensible change from the nonsensical knee-jerk bullhorn activism.

Now, many more students are completing their A-G requirements at their local school. More LAUSD students are applying and succeeding at California universities than in the past. And mind you, two-thirds of college students in California attend community colleges. Until the taxpayers build three more UCs and 10 more CSUs, it is a costly fantasy to talk about all our children attending a university.

All this goes to say: The district is improving and must continue to do better. We must not be distracted by division and should make sure we get our information from credible sources. Thoughtful education policy is no picnic — there are almost never easy answers. Here’s hoping current and future leaders do the hard work required to make good decisions that will help all our students succeed.

David Tokofsky served on the LAUSD Board of Education for 12 years and is currently a strategist in the education field. He is a part-time consultant for the Associated Administrators of Los Angeles (AALA), the school administrators’ union, was California’s 1992 Teacher of the Year while at John Marshall High School, and coached LAUSD’s first National Academic Decathlon Team in 1987.

Read Next