OAKLAND — A troubling, new audit of the city's public high school course offerings has made Oakland school officials consider whether to ramp up the district's high school graduation requirements.
Oakland's public high schools offer too many watered-down academic courses that don't meet state university requirements, and "students routinely are allowed to follow a regressive sequence of math courses, in which they take increasingly lower level courses from one year to the next," according to an extensive, 18-month review by the Education Trust-West, an Oakland-based branch of a research and civil rights advocacy group in Washington, D.C.
The report will be presented tonight to the full school board.
"It's hard not to be emotional looking at that data," Brad Stam, Oakland Unified's chief academic officer, said last week, when the findings were first presented to a school board subcommittee. He added, "It's criminal negligence, frankly, some of what we saw going on."
After combing through high school master schedules and analyzing the course loads of individual students in the class of 2008, Ed Trust researchers spotted problematic "course-taking patterns," especially among Latino and African-American students.
An analysis of 2,000 student transcripts found that just 37 percent of all seniors and 26 percent of African-American seniors in Oakland's class of 2008 were on track to graduate with a 'C' grade or better in the 15 courses required by the state university systems, known as "A to G."
Just 5 percent of 12th-grade English learners met those requirements.
In response, district staff members outlined plans to address some of the concerns detailed in the audit — starting by eliminating some of the academic courses that won't help a student gain admission to a state university. Also, starting this year, the district will offer a "credit recovery" summer school program for students who have received D or F grades. A course catalog for families is in the works, as is a program to improve the school district's career technical education programs.
Stam said he was in favor of changing the school district's requirements to match what the state universities are expecting. That would mean no longer accepting a D grade as "passing," for example, and requiring students to take additional language and math courses.
San Jose Unified School District has successfully adopted this policy for its high schools, said Tami Pearson, of Ed Trust-West.
The topic is certain to be controversial. Discussions will take place in April, and the board will likely be presented with policy recommendations on the subject in "late spring," according to a report that district staff prepared in response to the Ed Trust review.
Maureen Benson, the principal of Youth Empowerment School, a small high school in the East Oakland hills, said requiring schools to offer more "A to G" courses is the easy part. She said students sometimes get upset with her when she places them in a second language class, for example; it's a college requirement, but it's not needed to graduate high school.
"Personally, I think it's criminal to let a kid in ninth or 10th grade choose whether they're going to a four-year school or not," she said.
Benson said it's her dream to see Oakland's numbers match those of its more affluent East Bay neighbor, Orinda. Still, she said, she's not certain that making the high school graduation requirements harder is the way to do it. If teachers and counselors don't believe students can master difficult material, these so-called "college prep" courses could end up being watered down, she said.
"Where's the examination of our will?" Benson asked. "If it's coming from a top-down change in policy, that's not going to change anything."