What is California’s High School Graduation Rate?

California’s High School Graduation Rate
Cameron Sublett
Pepperdine University
Russell W. Rumberger
University of California, Santa Barbara


This report examines high school graduation rates in California. It reviews the various approaches to calculating high school graduation rates, focusing on the challenges and limitations of the most widely used rate, the Four-Year Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate (ACGR). The report finds:

  • No single graduation rate is sufficient to measure the rate at which students graduate from high school, in part, because graduation rates serve at least two different policy goals: (1) measuring the well-being or human capital of a given population and (2) serving as an indicator of school performance and educational accountability;
  • The requirements for a high school diploma are set by states and local school districts, and thus can vary widely. They also vary over time. Additionally, some states and districts provide alternative pathways to earn a diploma. At the same time, the federal government has imposed a restrictive definition of a “regular” high school diploma, which excludes diplomas earned in adult high schools. As a result, graduation rates are a “moving target” that makes it difficult to render meaningful comparisons between states and districts or over time.
  • The ACGR has several limitations as a measure of school accountability:
    1. It fails to account for the characteristics of students when they “walk in the door,” measuring how many students earn a diploma in four years regardless of how well prepared they are when they start high school, including students who need to learn English;
    2. It ignores students who graduate in five or six years even if these students start high school below grade level and therefore need extra time to finish;
    3. It fails to account for students who change schools, holding the receiving school fully responsible for the success or failure of a transfer student no matter how long they attend that school, while absolving the originating school of any responsibility no matter how long they attend that school.

The report makes a number of recommendations to address these issues.

Suggested citationSublett, C., & Rumberger, R. (2018, December). What is California’s high school graduation rate? [Report]. Policy Analysis for California Education.