The tougher requirements, set to take effect with the graduating class of 2016 — today's ninth-graders — will require students to complete all prerequisites for California's public, four-year universities unless they negotiate customized "alternative requirements" with school officials.
The new rules raise the bar for the nearly 20 percent of Palo Alto students currently not completing the four-year, college-prep curriculum. They will not affect more than 81 percent of students who already do so.
School officials this week reported progress toward a four-year-old goal of getting 85 percent of students to complete the college-prep curriculum, known in state parlance as the "a-g requirements."
That goal was exceeded for the first time by the Gunn High School Class of 2012, with 86.3 percent completing the a-g coursework. At Paly, completion rates lagged, with 76.2 percent of June's graduates finishing a-g, for a district-wide average of 81.2 percent.
"When you look at our strategic-plan goals around college readiness, we're getting closer to reaching them," said school district statistician Diana Wilmot. In 2008, only 74.8 of seniors graduated with the four-year college-prep coursework under their belts, she said.
The Board of Education voted in May to boost graduation requirements, aligning them by 2016 with the a-g curriculum. The move was strongly backed by the Student Equity Action League and the Parent Network for Students of Color, now known as Parent Advocates for Student Success (PASS).
PASS co-chair Kim Bomar, whose children attend Nixon Elementary School, said the progress report on a-g completion "is almost all good news," but she still worries in particular about achievement levels of African-American students.
"We lobbied very strongly to raise the graduation requirements," Bomar said.
"But many of us lose sleep at night wondering whether the district will do the intervention, monitoring, identifying, scaffolding and advising necessary ... to make sure that students can meet them."
Wilmot analyzed data on the 172 June graduates who did not complete a-g, seeking clues that could guide school staff toward earlier intervention for future students.
The most reliable predictor of failure to complete the college-prep curriculum was low mathematics scores in elementary school, she said.
Elementary students scoring "below or far below basic" on the California Standards (STAR) Test had only a 20 percent chance of completing a-g, while students scoring "proficient" or above in elementary math had a 93 percent chance of completing them.
African-American and Hispanic students were over-represented among the 172 June graduates who did not complete a-g, with 17 black and 32 Hispanic students among them, Wilmot said.
Nonetheless, most of the non-completing students — 92 — were white, and half had parents who earned graduate degrees. Ten of the 172 were East Palo Alto or eastern Menlo Park students who attend Palo Alto schools under the Tinsley Voluntary Transfer Program.
Bomar noted that even though just 10 of the 172 not meeting a-g last June were Tinsley students, those 10 represented 65 percent of the Tinsley students who graduated in 2012.
"We've made progress, but there's still a lot of hard work to be done to deal with these more intractable cases," she said, adding that public schools should aspire to help kids go beyond the educational levels of their parents.
Superintendent Kevin Skelly said, "We're not going to rest on our laurels, if there are any laurels. To get the next third of kids is going to take a different strategy, and this is constantly moving. We have to continue to work and bring new energy and ideas."