The San Jose Unified district was the first to make this bold move in 2002. Since then, the Oakland, San Francisco and San Diego districts have also decided to require students to take 30 semester credits in six required subject areas. These include English, mathematics, social sciences, science, foreign language, visual and performing arts and other electives.
The rigorous course load exceeds the state's minimum graduation requirements by requiring an extra year of English, math, foreign language and other college prep electives.
Districts implementing the more stringent requirements say they will improve their students' college readiness. But a report released Wednesday by the Public Policy Institute of California, or PPIC, says these ambitious requirements could backfire by making graduation too difficult for some students, and cause them to drop out or fail to earn diplomas after four years.
Although the report was based on a review of the San Diego district, which is requiring the extra courses -- called A-G -- for students in the class of 2016, its findings could apply to other large districts with similar percentages of graduates who currently meet the UC standards, the authors say.
"San Diego students will need to dramatically change the courses they take," said report co-author Julian Betts, who is also a UC San Diego professor. "Clear communication with students, parents, and teachers about the new requirements is critical -- and that communication needs to begin in middle school, if not earlier."
The study recognizes that students may have a harder time graduating with the more rigorous standards, unless schools undertake major interventions to ensure they can succeed.
Traci Cook, spokeswoman for the San Jose district, said high school freshmen who are struggling can be identified for interventions to help them academically. Or, they can pursue an alternate path to graduation by attending continuation schools, where courses are not certified as meeting A-G requirements by the University of California but still meet state and district requirements, she said.
"As long as they pass the California High School Exit Exam," she said, "they receive a diploma from our district the same as our traditional high school students."
Despite buy-in by San Jose and Oakland to the more rigorous course load, both districts give students the option of opting out of the A-G requirements and to graduate with a D or higher, even though UCs requires a C or better for admission.
In 2012, 44.3 percent of San Jose Unified's graduates completed the A-G requirements, an increase of about 4 percentage points over the previous year, Cook said.
Oakland implemented the more rigorous requirements two years ago, but did not see its graduation rates drop, said district spokesman Troy Flint. However, seniors in the class of 2015 will be the first students required to meet the standards to graduate, according to the report.
"We believe when the work is more engaging, and you have good instruction that challenges students and have good supports, they will rise to the challenge," Flint said. "In the Oakland district, the graduation rate has improved about 5 percentage points over the last five years, including the last two years under A-G requirements."
Flint said Oakland has made it a priority. The district's strategic plan includes four components: rigorous graduation requirements, strong technical education to prepare students to work in the 21st century economy, workplace learning that gets students out of the classroom and into the field, and social services and academic supports. Although the district doesn't have as much money as it would like, some of these efforts are funded by grants, Flint said.
In Contra Costa County, the Mt. Diablo district is looking at possibly increasing courses required for graduation, to raise expectations for students, after dropping them a few years ago to save money by eliminating summer school.
But Superintendent Steven Lawrence, who came up with the plan to lower the requirements, said in an e-mail that he is concerned about how the district would pay for additional help for struggling students, if requirements are more stringent.
"Supports generally take funds to provide," he wrote, "and I am not sure given the current funding level in California where these funds would come from."
Theresa Harrington covers education. Reach her at 925-945-4764. Follow her at Twitter.com/tunedtotheresa.
SUBJECT STATE REQUIREMENT UC REQUIREMENT*
a. History/social studies 6 semesters (3 years) 4 semesters (2 years)
b. English language arts 6 semesters (3 years) 8 semesters (4 years)
c. Mathematics 4 semesters (2 years) 6 semesters (3 years)
d. Laboratory sciences 4 semesters (2 years) 4 semesters (2 years)
e. World languages 2 semesters (1 year)** 4 semesters (2 years)
f. Visual and performing arts Optional** 2 semesters (1 year)
g. College-preparatory elective Not applicable 2 semesters (1 year)
Physical education 4 semesters (2 years) Not applicable
Required subtotal: 26 semester credits 30 semester credits
*Students can meet some of these requirements by taking college courses or achieving certain scores on Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), or Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) subject area exams.
**One year of foreign combined with visual and performing arts or career technical education
SOURCE: Public Policy Institute of California
The complete report: "College Readiness as a Graduation Requirement: An Assessment of San Diego's Challenges," is available by visiting www.ppic.org.