AIR, CDRP Study of CA School Districts Highlights Successful Strategies for Improving High School Graduation Rate

Washington, D.C. – In 2007, three high schools in Stockton, CA, were labeled “dropout factories” in a Johns Hopkins University study. The Stockton Unified School District responded by developing several small high schools as alternatives to its large, comprehensive schools. It offered a special program for students to make up missed credits, mixing online and small-group instruction. And it beefed up its data system to allow early identification and intervention for students with academic and attendance problems. Between the 2009-10 and 2012-13 school years, Stockton’s graduation rate jumped from 66.1 percent to 83.1 percent—one of the largest improvements in California.

Stockton’s strategies are typical of California districts that were most successful in pushing up their graduation rates over that period, according to a new study by researchers at American Institutes of Research (AIR) and the California Dropout Research Project (CDRP), based at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The study’s authors identified the ten districts in California with the largest increases in high school completion rate and interviewed administrators at five of the districts to see what policies and programs they believed were the key to success.

“Much of the research on dropout prevention has been focused on school-level programs and policies,” said Helen Duffy, a senior researcher at AIR and lead author of the study. “This study allowed us to take a look at successful school districts and learn what factors they considered crucial in reducing their dropout rates.”

Like Stockton, successful districts frequently employed the following strategies, according to the study:

  • Allowing students to choose among varied academic programs, often built around career interests. For example, the Fullerton Joint Union High School District has specialized academies in arts, sports medicine, and engineering.
  • Offering students options to make up credits, and giving them extra support. Moreno Valley Unified District expanded summer school and launched a “Help Me Graduate” Hotline where students could learn how to get and stay on track for graduation.
  • Improving data systems to spotlight problems, identify students in need of help, drive professional development, and hold schools accountable for progress. Tulare Union High School District implemented an “early warning system,” identifying problems as early as middle school.
  • Partnering with businesses, non-profits and higher education campuses. The Barstow Unified School District created partnerships between each school and a business coalition, with quarterly meetings to help schools set goals and review progress, and the local junior college, which offers early college and credit recovery opportunities.

The report also cited as positive factors leadership consistency, securing grants and “creating a sense of collective responsibility for the success of all students.”

All the districts studied had an increase in school completion rate between 14.6 percent and 26.4 percent between 2009-10 and 2012-13, compared with a statewide increase of 5.7% over the same period. The greatest gains in graduation rate came among African-American and Hispanic students.

In 2012, more than 760,000 students who entered high school four years earlier failed to graduate on time, according to a national study cited in the report.  The United States ranked near the bottom in graduation rate among developed nations, with a figure of 81 percent.

The report cautions, “We cannot say with certainty what caused the growth in graduation rates. What we report are district and school leader perceptions of what might have contributed to their success.” The authors conclude, however, that the study “provides additional anecdotal evidence that districts do indeed have vital roles to play in supporting improved outcomes for students.”

“Despite recent, overall improvements in high school graduation rates in California and nationwide, there remain vast differences in rates among districts,” said Russell Rumberger, director of the CDRP. “The report provides valuable lessons that struggling districts can adopt to improve their graduation rates.”

“The District Role in Graduation Rate Improvement: Promising Practices from Five California Districts” and an accompanying policy brief can be found at and

About AIR
Established in 1946, with headquarters in Washington, D.C., the American Institutes for Research (AIR) is a nonpartisan, not-for-profit organization that conducts behavioral and social science research and delivers technical assistance both domestically and internationally in the areas of health, education and workforce productivity. For more information, visit