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Lesson 6.2

Academic Rigor:
Is School Challenging Enough?

To be college-ready, students need to pass fifteen specific classes. About half do.

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How hard should school be?

Most people agree that school should be rigorous, in a Goldilocks sort of way. You know, hard but not too hard.

School is the opportunity engine of modern life. Virtually every country in the world provides free primary and secondary education in the hope that every young person will become a self-sufficient, contributing adult. In the US, opportunity is central to the idea of public education — we want to believe that students from anywhere can go anywhere. We want to believe that every student in every public school, with a bit of grit, has a fair opportunity for success in college and career.

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

In reality, although most students in California get a high school diploma, a huge portion of them finish high school with a weak transcript. They don't qualify to even apply to a selective four-year college. In some communities, college is effectively out of reach because the high school courses they need aren't available to them. In a 2024 report, EdSource documented and mapped the patterns throughout California. The fifteen-minute podcast episode about this subject is an excellent summary:

California's definition of college-ready

In California, anyone can enroll in a community college, even without a high school diploma. Being college ready has a specific meaning that connotes a higher standard.

To apply for admission to the University of California (UC) or California State University (CSU) college system, students need more than just a high school diploma — they need evidence that they took and passed rigorous classes. Specifically, thy must have passed a set of fifteen college preparatory courses in seven categories with a grade of C or better. These are known as the a-g requirements. (Insiders pronounce it "A to G" or "A through G" and write it in lower case letters for some reason. Go figure.) High school courses don't automatically count: schools must submit course descriptions to UC officials who decide if they qualify as college-preparatory.

California’s statewide a-g requirements differ slightly from the requirements for the UC and CSU systems.

The a-g requirements:

High school subject area

CA requirements for HS graduation

UC requirements for freshman admission

CSU requirements for freshman admission

a) Social Studies

3 years

2 years

2 years

b) English

3 years

4 years

4 years

c) Mathematics

2 years

3 years (4 recommended)

3 years

d) Science

2 years

2 years (3 recommended)

2 years

e) World Language

1 year

2 years (3 recommended*)

2 years

f) Visual and Performing Arts

1 year

1 year

1 year

g) Electives


1 year

1 year

Physical Education

2 years







The a-g list of courses is more demanding than the state’s minimum high school graduation requirements or the expectations of most school districts. For decades, data about college readiness was poorly tracked. In 2018-19, the state addressed the gap by incorporating achievement of the a-g requirements into the "College and Career" indicator on the California School Dashboard.

College-ready rates have gradually risen in California, but very slowly and with huge gaps by race/ethnicity, gender, and locale. In 2012, about 38% of the students who graduated from high school were college-ready as measured by completion of the a-g requirements. In 2023 just over half did so. But the rate varies tremendously from school to school, from place to place, and from group to group.

Some high schools don't even offer the full a-g course sequence

The state's minimum requirements to graduate differ from the requirements to attend college in the CSU or UC system. Graduation requirements vary by school district, and not all high schools offer the full a-g course sequence. Even if they do, course scheduling issues can prevent students from getting the courses they need.

In the Ed100 blog:
UC Scout: One answer to the teacher shortage

Students in small, rural, or high-poverty schools often struggle to pass the a-g requirements because the courses aren't offered in their school. There are solutions. Some enroll in courses at a community college, if they can. Others enroll in classes online to earn the a-g course credits they need. The University of California offers all of the a-g courses online and at low or no cost through UC Scout.

Should a high school diploma be more difficult to earn?

About half of California students pass the a-g course sequence, with big gaps.

As explained in Lesson 6.1, the Common Core Standards define a set of expectations about what students ought to learn and when they should learn it. Most students don't achieve these expectations, even if they graduate from high school. One persistent line of "tough love" thinking suggests that this is wrong, and that a high school diploma ought to signal that the student reached some defined level of accomplishment.

There is evidence to support this point of view. For more than a decade in the early 2000s, to qualify for a diploma California public high school students had to pass an exit exam (known as the CAHSEE, pronounced kay-see). To be clear, it was not a rigorous test. Most students found it absurdly easy, passing on their first try in their sophomore year. Students could re-take the test, but even after multiple tries nearly one out of ten students failed it. Some students took it as a cue to quit school. Graduation rates fell.

Ultimately, the exit exam was abandoned as part of the anti-test movement during the state's adoption of the Commmon Core standards.

In an effort to improve educational rigor for all students, and to expand students’ access to college, some California school districts made the a-g course sequence central to their expectations for all students. Los Angeles Unified, California's largest school district, was an early leader in making completion of the a-g course sequence a graduation requirement, a policy it established after years of preparation, beginning with students graduating in 2017. As with the state exit exam, raising standards had both intended and unintended consequences, further complicated by the pandemic. More students took the necessary courses, but many failed them.

Students are more likely to succeed in high school courses if they enter high school well-prepared. Of course, the same can be said of middle school, and of each grade level back to preschool. Knowledge and skills develop gradually from year to year. When students fall behind, it's very hard to catch up. Most don't.

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.

This lesson was updated March 2024


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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Alisa Sabshin-Blek August 24, 2020 at 12:28 pm
How are these standards and information provided to students and families?
user avatar
Jenny Greene July 26, 2020 at 7:21 am
How can we find out if public high schools in our district have the a-g required courses?
user avatar
Alan Ham July 23, 2020 at 10:35 am
High school is pretty challenging because so teachers do not teach very well, though I know that they do their best. I think the issue is that students are trying hard enough, even though they have the ability to study, discuss, and work. I feel that one of the problems is sleep deprivation. Lots of high schoolers fall asleep at school, and it is because they have to get up early for 8AM class. It is a good thing that they passed to extend the school times to a later time. However, I think it is unfair because it start in 2023 I think.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar April 8, 2018 at 11:28 am
A study in American Progress asked two basic questions about how states prepare their students for college and work:
1. Are high school graduation requirements for a standard, non-advanced diploma aligned with requirements for admission to the state’s public university system?

2. Are high school graduation requirements aligned with college and career readiness benchmarks and indicators of a “well-rounded” education—one that includes coursework and other educational experience in, among other topics, computer science, engineering, health, music, and technology?

In many areas, California's high school graduation requirements do not the minimum requirements to get into college. Many other states have much closer alignment.

You can read the study here
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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