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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 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 opportunity engine of modern life. In every country, public school systems exist, in part, to give every young person the opportunity for success in college and career.

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

In California, being college ready has a specific meaning. About 83.5% of California students earn a high school diploma or equivalent (based on 2018 data, the latest available as of late 2022). Anyone can enroll in community college, with or without a high school diploma.

To be eligible for admission to the University of California (UC) or California State University (CSU) college system, students must graduate high school having 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" 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

3 years

d) Science

2 years

2 years

2 years

e) Foreign 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







This 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, though very slowly. 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 2018 the rate was 42%, and in 2021 it was 43.8%. But the rate varies tremendously from school to school, from place to place, and from group to group. (Note: The Dashboard was largely suspended during the Pandemic, but statewide metrics for a-g completion rates were calculated.)

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

The state's minimum requirements to graduate are not the same as 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. Of those that do, many do not make these classes available to all their students.

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

Students in small or rural schools often struggle to find a way to meet the requirements. 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?

Less than half of California students pass the a-g course sequence.

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. One persistent line of "tough love" thinking suggests that achievement standards ought to be enforced in order for a high school diploma to have meaning.

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. Dropout rates rose, with the usual patterns.

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

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.

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.

Updated July 2017
March 2019
November 2022


Which ONE of the following statements is TRUE?

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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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