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Lesson 6.2

Academic Rigor:
Is School Challenging Enough?

Your kids need to meet fifteen requirements to be “college ready.”

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How challenging should school be? The issue of rigor in K-12 schools actually involves several questions. What set of educational opportunities should schools make available to all students? What is the minimum level of competency every student should meet? Obviously, students will emerge from high school with differences in their academic achievements; at what point can and should our expectations for students diverge based on their individual interests and abilities?

Hardly anyone would disagree that our public school system needs to give every young person the opportunity for a rigorous enough education so they graduate from high school prepared for success in college and career. (The question of whether college and career require identical preparation is covered at greater length in Lesson 6.11.)

In California, being “college ready” has a specific meaning.

In California, being “college ready” has a specific meaning. To gain entry to the University of California (UC) or California State University (CSU) college system, students must pass a set of fifteen courses in seven categories with a grade of C or better. These are known as the "a-g requirements". (Insiders pronounce the hyphen as the word "through," so it reads "A through G." For some reason it is usually written in lower case. Go figure.) High schools submit course descriptions to UC officials who decide if they qualify as college-preparatory courses.

The a-g requirements:

  • History/Social Science - 2 years
  • English - 4 years
  • Mathematics - 3 years (Algebra 1, Geometry, and Algebra 2 or equivalent)
  • Laboratory Science - 2 years
  • Language other than English - 2 years in the same language
  • Visual and Performing Arts - 1 year
  • College-preparatory Elective - 1 year

This list of courses is more demanding than the state’s minimum high school graduation requirements or the expectations in most school districts. In 2011-12, about 38% of the state’s high school graduates met this set of course requirements. Completion rates varied dramatically based on student ethnicity.

Ed-data graph a-g


Not all high schools even offer the full a-g course sequence

Not all high schools offer the full a-g course sequence and of those that do, many do not make these classes available to all their students. To apply to a public four year college in California, students in such schools often struggle to find a way to meet the requirements, if they are even clear about them. Some enroll in courses at a community college.

A new graduation requirement?

Considerably less than half of California high school students pass the a-g course sequence.

In an effort to improve educational rigor for all students, and to expand students’ access to college, some California school districts are making the a-g course sequence central to their expectations for all students. Los Angeles Unified, California's largest school district, went so far as to make completion of the a-g course sequence a graduation requirement, a policy it established in 2005 for students graduating in 2017. Many more students took and passed the more advanced courses, but the higher bar meant that substantially fewer were on course to earn a high school diploma. Another high profile district's record-keeping came under critical scrutiny in 2013. It appears that although the district expected all students to take the a-g courses, it was less successful at making sure that students were able to master the course content.

Students who enter high school well prepared are much more likely to succeed in rigorous high school courses. The path to college- and career-readiness starts with what children learn in kindergarten or even earlier. As California schools implement the new Common Core State Standards they have an opportunity to really map out what this would require, at least in the two most basic subjects, English language arts and math.

What minimum level of competency is acceptable for a high school graduate today? One way to answer that is to specify which subjects students need to study, such as the a-g requirements. Another is to decide how well they need to learn the material. We’ll get into the question of what constitutes success a lot more deeply in Chapter 9.

Young people can take many different paths to success -- but which paths should be acceptable?

  • Not every high school graduate needs or wants to take calculus -- but should they all take advanced algebra?
  • Only a portion of students will be interested in economics -- but do they all need some exposure to the subject?
  • Some young people will want to study music or art intensely -- but are these subjects every high school student should take?

We’ll explore some of these questions more later in this Chapter, but in Lessons 6.3 and 6.4 we’ll turn first to the basics, English and math.

Tips for Parents

In many cases, getting into college requires more than just completing those a-g requirements. Check these out:

The California State PTA provides resources to help plan for college, including info on application and testing assistance, school research, and financial aid.


To apply to public four-year colleges in California, students must first take and pass fifteen classes known as the "a-g" requirements. Which ONE of the following statements is TRUE?

Answer the question correctly and earn a ticket.
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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Carol Kocivar December 5, 2015 at 11:10 am
UC Scout Program
To meet the needs of students whose schools do not offer courses needed to get into the UC system, the University of California now offers online high school courses that can be taken entirely over the Internet, or used by teachers to guide instruction and increase the offerings at their school.
Offering a catalog of 23 courses and growing, Scout offers the challenging Advanced Placement courses that can give students an edge in applying to the University of California. It also offers a roster of the core academic subjects, known as the “a-g” requirements, that are mandatory for admission to one of California’s public four-year universities.
user avatar
Veli Waller April 8, 2015 at 5:09 pm
The fact that only just over a third of students are a-g eligible and thus eligible for our public 4-year colleges and universities is deplorable. The number of students testing college ready on the EAP is another horrifying statistic. Our high school graduates are not ready for post-secondary success.
user avatar
nguyen_khanh January 18, 2015 at 12:01 am
I am a Kindergarten teacher at the Alhambra Unified School District and we start the college readiness conversation with students starting in Kindergarten. All students are expected to have a shot at going to college. Our district makes the "A-G" courses available to all students and we also have open enrollment policy for AP courses. We are in the process of implementing the Three C's: College and Career Readiness and Citizenship in our district. By offering a rigorous curriculum starting from Kindergarten, our district is able to provide more opportunities for students to complete the A-G requirements.
user avatar
Manny Barbara April 27, 2011 at 9:47 pm
The successful completion of algebra in grade 8 is a critical metric and helps predict successful completion of the A-G requirements. One way to address the issue addressed in the Ed Source research is to pay closer attention to how students are placed in algebra. Districts, even schools within districts, often demonstrate wide variation in how students are placed. Research by Steve Waterman in San Mateo County indicated that the results are often inequitable. Whether students with identical skill sets are placed in grade 8 algebra can depend on where they happen to go to school and not their mathematical readiness. The Silicon Valley Education Foundation has recently completed a project involving the East Side Union High School District and the elementary feeder schools wherein districts agreed on a common algebra placement protocol. This work has also been conducted in Fresno Unified and in Merced County. The grade 8 algebra placement issue is really about providing equitable access to a rigorous curriculum.
As far as the A-G requirements are concerned, districts can require the coursework to be the default curriculum rather than a graduation requirement as currently in place in San Jose Unified. The key is that students are not denied access to a more rigorous curriculum, (although variation can exist as to the rigor among coursework offered). While not every student is headed to college, that decision should be theirs alone and not because of a system problem of providing access.
user avatar
Paul Muench January 17, 2015 at 7:35 am
This is a very interesting historical comment. California has taken an about face on this topic. The district that Mr. Barbara used to lead has fallen in line with California policy. His district used to support students completing algebra 2 in middle school but no longer. This transformation was an eye opening experience for me. I wasn't aware that the state was incenting districts to accelerate math by giving districts API points to encourage students to take algebra in 8th grade. Once that incentive was gone the math acceleration practice changed radically. It's not always easy to know if what your district tells you is based on genuine understanding and commitment to education or is motivated by other factors.
user avatar
_Bruce Ross September 13, 2015 at 9:16 pm
It is difficult to tell if the courses align precisely -- and Common Core blows it all up anyway --- but when I was kid in a small town in New Mexico, 8th-grade algebra was pretty routine. It shocks me that pressing it was controversial in California -- and for that matter that you only need three math units to complete a-g. And then we wonder why so many kids need remedial math in college ...
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