What do you need to graduate high school in California?

In order to graduate from high school in California, students must meet certain requirements set by the state and their local school district. The main requirements focus on coursework, exit exams, and credits.


All students in California must complete a specific set of courses in order to graduate from high school. These mandatory courses include:

  • 4 years of English
  • 3 years of math (minimum requirement is Algebra 1)
  • 2 years of science, including biological and physical sciences
  • 3 years of social studies, including U.S. history & geography; world history, culture, and geography; 1 semester of American government and civics; and 1 semester of economics
  • 2 years of physical education
  • 1 year of foreign language, art, or other electives

Many districts and schools have additional course requirements beyond the state minimum, such as an extra year of math or science, technology, health, and career education courses. Students should check with their counselors to ensure they meet all local graduation requirements.

Exit Exams

California requires all students to pass statewide exit exams in order to graduate from high school. There are two exit exams:

  1. California High School Proficiency Exam (CHSPE): This test measures proficiency in reading, writing, and mathematics. Students can take the CHSPE as early as 10th grade. Passing serves as an exemption from compulsory school attendance.
  2. California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP): This is a suite of standardized tests in English and math. It includes the Smarter Balanced Summative Assessments. All students take these computer adaptive tests in 11th grade.

Students with significant disabilities are able to graduate by completing a designated alternative assessment instead of the standard exit exams.


Along with the required coursework and exit exams, students in California must accumulate a certain number of credits to earn a high school diploma. Most districts require:

  • 220 credits of coursework
  • Completion of courses that satisfy the CSU/UC A-G requirements (college entrance requirements)

The credit requirements can vary slightly by school district, but most follow these standard guidelines. Some key things to note about credits:

  • Typically, students earn 5 credits for each semester-long course they pass.
  • A minimum GPA is usually required (around 2.0) for graduation.
  • Students transferring from other states or private schools will have their credits evaluated individually.

Alternative Paths

Beyond the traditional high school diploma, there are a few alternative options in California:

  • GED: By taking and passing the General Educational Development (GED) test, students can earn the equivalent of a high school diploma.
  • CHSPE: As mentioned above, passing the California High School Proficiency Exam results in a Certificate of Proficiency, which exempts the student from compulsory attendance.
  • High School Equivalency Test: This is another test students can take through the California Department of Education to earn the equivalent of a diploma.

Homeschool students and those attending private schools have different but equivalently rigorous graduation requirements enforced by their local school districts.

Special Education Students

Students with disabilities in California have three options when it comes to graduation:

  1. Meet the standard state and local graduation requirements with appropriate accommodations written into an Individualized Education Program (IEP).
  2. Complete revised graduation requirements as specified in the IEP.
  3. Meet the requirements of an alternative diploma for students with special needs.

Special education students who are unlikely to meet regular requirements even with modifications can earn an alternative diploma by completing a functional skills curriculum. This allows special needs students to graduate with practical life skills.

English Learners

English learners (ELs) must meet the same graduation standards as general education students. However, they are provided additional services and support. These include:

  • English language development instruction
  • Primary language support
  • Specially designed academic instruction delivered in English
  • Reasonable accommodations on assignments and assessments

In addition, ELs have access to the full curriculum and extra time to complete their high school education (ages 18-21). Schools carefully monitor EL progress to ensure students meet English proficiency standards prior to graduation.

Military Service

Students who enlist in the U.S. military before finishing high school can still receive a diploma through the California High School Diploma Program. To qualify, students must:

  • Be California residents
  • Provide documentation of active duty enlistment
  • Be recommended for a diploma by their principal or commanding officer

By completing boot camp and presenting evidence of satisfactory service, military students can be awarded high school diplomas even without finishing normal graduation requirements.


In summary, graduating from high school in California requires completing state and local course requirements, passing exit exams, accumulating sufficient credits, and meeting any additional district expectations. Standardized requirements apply statewide, but students should ensure they know their school district’s unique policies. With smart planning, focus, and hard work, students can successfully earn their high school diplomas in California and move on to bright futures.

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