US School System

This page provides an overview of school-level study in the US, including information on terminology differences, school governance and organisation, types of schools, grade levels and assessment.

Terminology Differences

As you research US schools, you should note the following differences in terminology between the US and UK:

Key Differences

Academic Year: The school year in the US is generally shorter than that in the UK. Most schools organise their school year by semesters. There are two semesters in the school year. The fall semester is from mid-August / early September - December / January. The spring semester is from January - end of May / mid-June.

There are also fewer school holidays. Families can expect to have public holidays off: Labour Day (early September), Memorial Day (late May), Martin Luther King Jr Day (mid-January), Thanksgiving (Thursday and Friday in mid-November) and Good Friday and Easter Monday. Students will likely have a week-long spring break, two-day fall break and two week Christmas break.

School Governance: As you approach the US school system, bear in mind that the control and governance of US schools is very different from that of UK schools. While the US government provides funding and national standards for schools, authority over public (state-funded) school education in the US rests primarily with individual state departments of education. As most policies are set at the state and local levels, the school curriculum can vary from state to state and even between school districts within a state. Therefore your best point of contact will usually be the local school or school board.

Grade Levels

Formal education in the US is generally mandatory from age 5/6 to 16, varying slightly by state. School-level education is divided into "grades". US grades K (Kindergarten) - 12 in the US correspond to Years 1 - 13 in the UK, as summarised in the chart below. Schooling usually begins with elementary/primary school (Kindergarten - US grade 5), followed by middle/junior high school (US grades 6 - 8) and finishing with high school (US grades 9 to 12). Some US children begin their education at privately-run pre-schools.

Age Level of Study US Grade UK Year
3 - 4 Pre-school N/A Nursery School
5 - 10 Elementary / Primary School Kindergarten - 5th Years 1 - 6
11 - 13 Middle School 6th - 8th Years 7 - 9
14 - 18 High School 9th - 12th (Freshman - Senior) Years 10 - 13

Kindergarten is the first year of primary/elementary school and is the equivalent to Year 1 in the UK. Elementary schools provide instruction in the fundamental skills of reading, writing and arithmetic, as well as history, geography, civics, crafts, music, science, health and physical education. Foreign languages are often introduced in middle school. Under the "No Child Left Behind’" policy, students also complete state exams in reading/language arts, maths and science in Grades 3 – 8 and once at the high school level.

As students advance to middle/junior high school, the curriculum will likely become a bit more flexible, including both required and elective classes. In required subjects such as maths, English and science, students may be grouped in class sections based upon achievement. They may also begin having a bit more flexibility in selecting elective classes in subjects, such as foreign languages, band, home economics, chorus and art.

Although there is no national curriculum, the general content of the high school curriculum across the country has many consistencies. The state will likely set a list of basic required courses for high school graduation. These may include English, mathematics, foreign language, physical education, art and/or music, general science, and social studies (a subject that combines history, government and geography). However, students continue to have flexibility in choosing the level of their classes and elective subjects with the assistance of their parents and a school guidance counsellor. Many high schools will also have "tracks" for students wishing to attend a four-year university, pursue a vocational or technical degree at a two-year college or enter the workforce following high school.

Upon satisfactory completion of 12th grade and the state graduation requirements, the student receives a "high school diploma".

Types of Schools

As in the UK, there are both state-funded (public) schools and privately-funded (private) schools.

Public schools (state-funded) provide free education for students who live in the local area and are funded by local taxes and funding from the state and federal governments. About 85-90% of students in the US attend public schools. 

Most commonly, students in the public school system will attend the local school assigned to them by their school district. However, some districts provide magnet (specialised), charter and international schools, to which students may apply. Due to this system, families often take into account the assigned schools for particular neighbourhoods when choosing a new area in which to live. 

Although public schools are open to students at all educational levels, students may be grouped in class sections (Advanced Placement, honours, vocational classes, etc.) based upon achievement and post-graduation goals (for example, earning a bachelor's degree, attending a community college, or entering the work force).

Private schools charge a fee for attendance and may have a smaller student population than public schools. They are often governed by a private board and subsequently are often not subject to regulations on curriculum or teaching qualifications set by the state. About 10% of students in the US attend private schools.

Assessment

Unlike in the UK, there is no national curriculum, and therefore US schools do not prepare students for national examinations such as the GCSEs, Highers, AS or A-levels. Rather students work toward completing a high school diploma (the requirements for which are set by each state), and are assessed for university entry based on GPA, class rank within the year group, rigour of classes taken (AP, honours, regular) and admissions tests. Students are generally assessed continually throughout the semester via a combination of tests, mid-term/final exams, essays, quizzes, homework assignments, classroom participation, group work, projects and attendance. This assessment culminates with a final "grade" for each course awarded at the end of the semester.

Marks can be given as letters (A+, A, B+, B, etc), or as numbers out of 100%. These grades are averaged over the student’s high school career, resulting in a Grade Point Average (GPA). Students may also receive a class rank, ranking his/her GPA amongst other members of his/her grade (year in school).

Generally the student's parents are sent a "report card" indicating the grades earned in each subject at the end of a quarter, semester or year. The student's overall academic history is recorded in a transcript which is later requested by universities seeking to evaluate the student. A "transcript" is an official document produced by the school listing the classes completed by the student, his/her marks (grades), GPA (grade point average), class rank and/or academic honours.

Contacts

The state board of education, school district and/or the school itself is often the best source of information on issues such as high school graduation requirements, curricular standards, state-wide exams, teacher certification processing, school performance and the ages of compulsory education. 

You may wish to begin locating the appropriate contacts by viewing the state board of education website, which can be linked to from the Department of Education website.