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Report of Findings:
A-G Interactive Guide High School Focus Groups

Posted here in partnership with the University of California Office of the President, A-G Interactive Guide Project. For more information, contact:

Roman Stearns
Project Coordinator, A-G Interactive Guide
Office of Undergraduate Admissions
University of California, Office of the President
1111 Franklin Street, 9th floor
Oakland, CA 94607-5200
Phone: 510.987.9696
Fax: 510.987.9522

A-G Interactive Guide
A Project of the Admissions and Articulation Subcommittee of the Educational Issues and Practices Committee of the Governor's School-to-Career Advisory Council Conducted Under the Auspices of the UCOP Office of Undergraduate Admissions

High School Focus Groups
February 2000

Report of Findings



A total of 54 educators participated in three High School Focus Groups in Oakland, Burbank and Fresno. All participants had responsibility in their schools and/or districts for the submission and/or ushering of courses through the a-g course approval process. At each of three focus groups, there was good representation from different roles within the K-12 system. The breakdown is below:








Site Administrators


(Principals, Assistant Principals, others)


District Administrators


(Assoc. Superintendents, Directors, Coordinators, others)







(Community College, STC Partnership, Co. Office of Educ.)




UC Undergraduate Admissions staff members were present at each of the focus groups. They observed the focus groups and had an opportunity to comment at the end of each. Four members of the Advisory Board for the A-G Interactive Guide Project also observed focus groups.



After introductions, an overview of the A-G Interactive Guide Project, and a review of the purpose for the focus groups, participants were facilitated through a process during which they responded to four questions:

  1. What has been your experience with the UC course approval process?

  2. To help you and others clearly understand the process, what information would you want to be clarified and/or articulated?

  3. To what degree do the UC requirements drive curriculum and course offerings at your high school(s)? How influential are the A-G requirements as compared to other drivers of curriculum and course offerings, such as State standards, curriculum frameworks, reform initiatives, WASC Focus on Learning accreditation process, textbooks, research, etc.?

  4. Which specific suggestions for improvement do you wish to present?
All responses were charted/documented. For each response, the facilitator asked if the response echoed the beliefs and/or experience of the larger group or if it was a unique situation that only held true for one or a few schools/districts. In this way, the facilitator was able to ascertain the relative support for each idea.

Findings in this report represent ideas that were commonly held by a large majority of participants.


The summary below represents the collective input from the participants of all three focus groups. The raw data is available upon request. Primary findings came from participants' responses to questions 1 & 3. Responses to questions 2 & 4 came in the form of recommendations, and are therefore reflected in the "Recommendations" section of this report.


At high schools around the State, the a-g subject area requirements have a huge influence over course offerings. Although UC accepts only the top 12.5% of high school graduates in the State, the a-g requirements drive course offerings for 100% of students. There is tremendous pressure from parents, students, and others to ensure that all courses are UC certified in order to enhance each child's chance of UC/CSU admissions and/or leave open the option to attend UC or CSU campuses. The influence of a-g requirements has had the following effects on high schools in California:

  • Schools set graduation requirements based on a-g requirements.

  • Courses that are not a-g certified are eliminated.

  • Broad-ranging reform initiatives are put at risk when new courses are not a-g certified.

  • There is reluctance to create new courses if they may not be a-g certified.

  • Elective course offerings are driven by a-g requirements, often against the best interest of students, educators, and parents. (In turn, a school's decision to offer certain electives also affects hiring, credentials, and facilities decisions.)

  • Beginning next year, the influence of the a-g requirements will be enhanced because the "percentage of UC/CSU eligible students" will become a component of the State's Accountability Performance Index (API) which ranks schools.
Educators around the State are motivated to improve learning opportunities for students. They are pressured by all segments of our population to raise the level of academic performance and better prepare students for college and careers. By restructuring schools into smaller learning communities, creating courses that are both rigorous and relevant, and holding themselves accountable, high school educators are following proven methods for school improvement. Yet, time and time again, educators find difficulty implementing their plans because University policies appear to conflict with their efforts.


  1. Inconsistencies. Several inconsistencies exist in the current a-g course certification process. Identical courses are approved at one school and not another (even within the same school district). In some cases these identical courses have the same name, other times different names. Identical courses are approved for different subject areas (i.e. English or elective). Course descriptions that are modeled after already-approved courses are submitted and not approved. Previously approved courses that were "dormant" for several years were not approved when they re-emerged. Some commonly approved courses are less rigorous than others that are not approved.

  2. Communication. Often, school personnel contact UC Undergraduate Admissions staff for feedback on course descriptions, clarification of the submission process, or follow up on courses waiting approval. Participants shared a broad range of experiences. Most commented that UC staff members were polite and very willing to spend time on the phone explaining rationale, assisting with course descriptions, etc. On the other hand, some experienced vague responses, lack of follow-up and generally unsatisfactory service. However, it was noted that there seemed to be marked improvement in recent years.

  3. Lack of Clarity: Process. Several process issues need further clarification.

    1. Schools/districts are not clear about the expected timeline for course submission and UC response. There is concern that the current timeline does not align well with the schools' course scheduling process.

    2. When a course description is returned to the school, either approved or denied credit, there is little or no rationale or feedback. Feedback is considered highly beneficial if a school wishes to revise the course in order to meet requirements.

    3. The process of updating a-f course lists needs clarification and/or simplification in several areas. The process seems overly tedious for many. For example, the use of a red pen to modify current lists seems archaic. The process of switching from district to school lists seems burdensome.

    4. Many schools change the names of courses for several reasons (e.g. to make them more attractive-sounding to students, to distinguish students in a career pathway, etc.). Schools need clearer instructions on how to simply change the name of a course and/or use several names for the same course.

    5. There is uncertainty about when schools are required to re-submit course descriptions after making modifications. For example, when schools modify courses so that they meet State content standards, are they expected to re-submit each of these modified course descriptions? When schools introduce variation into a traditional course (i.e. different instructional strategies, replacement of a text), should they re-submit the course?

    6. There is some confusion about the opportunity for ROP/Cs to submit courses for approval.

  4. Lack of Clarity: Criteria. Several questions remain about the criteria for a-f course approval.

    1. In some subject areas (i.e. science), the criteria/standards remain unclear. Will UC utilize State standards to define criteria in all subject areas, as they have done with visual and performing arts?

    2. Although some rigorous applied academic courses have been approved, high school educators remain quite unclear about the vernacular and criteria for approval of such courses.

      (Note: There is tremendous concern about UC's reluctance to approve courses that promote application of academic course content. Many participants were convinced that certain words, whether used in the course title or in the course description, caused a negative reaction by UC course reviewers. These terms include "applied", "practical", "skills", and "integrated technology", among others. Schools need clarification on UC's stance on such issues.)

    3. Most participants agreed that course titles were extremely important and/or influential in whether a course was approved. Titles that are unconventional or that include certain words seem to be considered with skepticism by UC staff.

    4. Honors courses still pose a problem for many schools. There is a need to clarify which courses are acceptable "honors" courses.

    5. Some schools remain unclear about criteria for courses designed for English language learners.


The following recommendations emerged from participants' responses to Questions 2 & 4. They are not listed in any particular order.

  1. Collaborate with the State to align efforts. Currently, schools are confused by conflicting expectations and an abundance of requirements. Standards, curriculum, course offerings, assessment, and reform initiatives are all influenced by several forces. The California Dept. of Education, University of California, California State University, and the Community College Chancellor's office should convene to agree on strategies that will align the State's four education systems and guide high schools in developing curriculum that meets all standards, frameworks, criteria, and requirements.

  2. Better define the criteria for course approval. In several subject areas, the criteria (or standards) for course approval need to be more clearly defined. It is strongly recommended that UC align with the newly approved State content standards, as UC has done in the area of visual and performing arts. In addition, the K-12 community needs clarification on which rigorous applied academic courses are acceptable to UC (i.e. architectural design, engineering, marine biology, environmental science, graphic design, multimedia, applied physics, biotechnology, telecommunications, etc.) and the criteria for evaluating other applied academic courses that emerge in the future.

  3. Clarify the "honors" designation. In order to eliminate current confusion around the "honors" designation, UC should more clearly define the purpose of and criteria for "honors" courses. This explanation should also advise the use of "honors" designation for 9th and 10th graders.

  4. Develop a course evaluation checklist or rubric. In order to articulate criteria and provide consistent feedback to schools on courses that are either approved or denied credit, UC should develop a standardized checklist or rubric by which UC reviewers evaluate course content and on which reviewers provide feedback to schools.

  5. Clarify the timeline for course submission and response. There is a need to clarify and perhaps adjust the timeline for revision of course lists, course submissions, and UC response so that events coincide with the schools' process of seeking school board approval for new courses, publishing course offerings, and scheduling students. UC should also determine (and articulate) an expected turnaround period for the course certification process.

  6. Provide a template for course submissions. In order to avoid unnecessary frustration on the part of both high school educators and UC course reviewers, UC should provide a recommended course description format that includes all course information necessary for UC to accurately and honestly review course descriptions (thus eliminating the guesswork). Ideally, course submission and UC response could all take place on-line through a web site.

  7. Provide samples of approved course descriptions. In order to assist high school educators in designing courses, UC should make available a collection of course descriptions that meet a-g criteria. These model course descriptions should represent both traditional courses and new, innovative courses.

  8. Simplify the process for updating course lists. Currently, the process for updating course lists seems confusing and burdensome. This process could be simplified by implementing the following strategies:

    1. Provide the annual "May letter" information in multiple forms (hard copy, e-mail, web site) to a broader audience.

    2. Represent "May letter" information graphically for ease in locating specific information.

    3. Be certain that "May letter" is printed on light-colored paper so that it can easily be photocopied and shared at a school site.

    4. Clarify whether UC prefers school lists or district lists.

    5. If there is a shift from district to school lists, allow districts to "grandfather in" existing approved courses.

    6. If district lists remain acceptable, allow districts to submit a spreadsheet to simply designate which courses are being offered at each school.

    7. Change the practice of using a red pen to indicate additions/deletions to course lists to a more streamlined, simpler on-line approach.

    8. Grant automatic approval of a course for a second school in the same district when one school has already gained approval for that course.

  9. Update and expand the Pathways web site. Currently, the Pathways web site (that lists approved courses for every high school in California) has limited value to high school educators. First, the web site should be updated regularly so that it is always up-to-date. Second, the web site should be searchable by course title, subject area, and keyword, as well as school and district. Third, it should serve as the foundation for the expanded web site that will be the product of the A-G Interactive Guide Project.

  10. Create a web site to facilitate distribution of information. Through the A-G Interactive Guide Project, UC should develop a web site that incorporates several of the recommendations above, and includes the following:
    • "What's new" section to discuss recent and upcoming changes in policy and practice

    • Frequently asked questions (FAQ's).

    • An abbreviated/condensed section for parents and students that provides basic information, helps them calculate their weighted GPA, clarifies honors courses, etc.

    • Special section on "visual and performing arts" requirement. Due to the newness of this requirement, there are many questions.

  11. Provide additional support in the course development process. There are several ways in which UC could provide outreach, guidance, and support to high school educators who are attempting to meet multiple demands when designing new courses. Specifically, UC could: (a) provide "helpful hints" for course design and write-up, (b) offer regional course writing workshops, (c) locate/place adjunct staff in regions around the State, and (d) distribute a list of individuals who can help advise or mentor those who need assistance with the course development and submission process (perhaps a peer assistance program).

  12. Provide opportunities for UC Admissions staff and BOARS committee members to learn about current curriculum reform efforts. As high schools make significant changes in curriculum, instruction, and assessment, it is important for UC faculty and staff who set and implement policy that affects schools to stay abreast of current concerns, challenges, and trends. This could be accomplished by arranging high school visitations and/or panel discussions, or attending conferences.

  13. Establish a mechanism for regular inquiry and response. During the focus groups, several interesting questions emerged that were unique to a single school, individual, or situation. There should be a mechanism set in place for high school educators, parents, students, or others to be able to receive timely response to such questions. This could be a 1-800 phone number and/or an e-mail service.