Education System in USA

The American education system is unlike that in many other countries. Education is primarily the responsibility of individual states and local government, and so there is little standardization in the curriculum, for example. The individual states have great control over what is taught in their schools and over the requirements that a student must meet, and they are also responsible for the funding of schooling. Therefore, there is huge variation regarding courses, subjects, and other activities – it always depends on where the school is located. Still, there are some common points, as e.g. the division of the education system into three levels: elementary/primary education, secondary education, and postsecondary/higher education (college or university).

Most children start school before the age of six, when compulsory schooling usually begins, in a nursery school or a kindergarten. The maximum 13 years of formal elementary and secondary education covers education from 5 to 18, divided into increments called grades (kindergarten to grade 12). Compulsory schooling, though, ends by age 16 in most states.

All children in the United States have access to free public schools. Private schools (religious and non-sectarian) are available, but students must pay tuition to attend them.

Pre-School (also called Pre-K or PK or Pre-Kindergarten) is not required. It begins around the age of three in order to prepare for the more didactic and academically intensive kindergarten, the traditional «first» class that school children participate in. Children usually start in kindergarten or grade one at the age of five or six and go up one grade each year until reaching grade 12 at the age of 17 or 18. The 12 years following the kindergarten year are usually organised under what is known as the ‘5-3-4 plan’ where grades 1 to 6 are in elementary (primary) school, grades 7 to 9 in junior high or middle school and grades 10 to 12 in a (senior) high school.

USA education system infographic


The following is a Map of the U.S. Education System combining all patterns at the primary and secondary education level and including post-secondary education system.

The school year usually runs from early September until May or June (nine months) and is divided into ‘quarters’ or terms (semesters). Some schools use the quarter system, which comprises three sessions: fall (September to December), winter (January to March) and spring (March to May or June). Others use a semester system made up of two sessions: fall (September to December) and spring (January to May).

A. Examinations & Grades

When a student enrolls in a public school, a ‘cumulative file’ or ‘folder’ is opened for him and there’s a continuous evaluation system throughout all grades.

Students are marked on each essay, exam and course taken in each subject studied throughout their 13 years of education (grades K to 12) and during their high school years, students are given «grades» for all their courses, and these are recorded. At the end of 12th Grade, the pupil’s grades are averaged out to provide a Grade Point Average (GPA), which will often be used as a selection criterion when they apply to college or university.

Students in 12th Grade also take Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SAT) or American College Tests (ACT). These are the second principal tests used as criteria for admission to college or university; but they are not exams in the same way as their European equivalents (French baccalauréat, German Abitur, English «A» levels, Spanish Selectividad), and are generally less demanding.

All grades that students get during their 13 years at school are internal and are related to the general standard achieved at a particular school, which usually makes it difficult to compare standards in different schools and states. Marks depend on a range of criteria, including a student’s performance in tests given at intervals during the year, participation in class discussions, completion of homework assignments, and independent projects. Students receive a report card at least twice a year (in some school districts it may be up to six times), which shows their grades in each subject they’re studying.

Commercially prepared tests are also given in many areas at all levels to assess students’ and schools’ achievements, and locally developed end-of-year examinations are given in many schools. Some states, e.g. New York, have state-wide exams prepared by the state department of education.

High School. The qualification: High School Diploma

A high school diploma is a North American academic school leaving qualification awarded upon high school graduation.

The high school diploma is typically studied over the course of four years, from Grade 9 to Grade 12. The diploma is typically awarded by the school in accordance with the requirements of the local state or provincial government.

Core areas of study

Different school areas have varying requirements but to gain the high school diploma the core academic classes may include:

– 4 years of English

–  3 years of math

–  3 years of science

–  3 years of social science (including U.S. history)

–   2 years of world languages or English as a second language

–  1 year of art

In each Grade the student will study up to 5 core academic classes and 2 electives. Your core academic classes ensure that you meet the requirements for the award of your High School Diploma and graduation from your High School.

Three different classes appropriate to the student’s education level:

–  College Placement – These are the standard level courses and are suitable for most students.

–  Honors courses – These are aimed at higher ability students.

–  Advanced Placement (AP) – These are college level courses aimed at the highest achieving students.

How the levels are graded?

Each of your courses will be given a GPA (grade point average) and this is the calculated average of the grades the student receives from your courses. The USA GPA is on a 4-point-scale, with 4.0 being the equivalent of an ‘A’.

Some of the High Schools don’t weight their GPAs based on the level of course the student takes, as they know that every university and college will look at the student’s application and individually assess it against its own entry criteria. The High School Counselors make sure the student has the best possible application and include their School Profile Document to ensure Admissions Advisors can easily assess his level of achievement.


The student can choose his electives from a wide range of subjects that will allow him to try new areas or develop a subject he/she enjoys or want to study at university or college. The teachers will help him to select electives to ensure the student makes the right choices and are building a great profile for your university and college applications.


High School electives may include
  • Art
  • Actor’s Studio
  • Advanced Drawing & Painting
  • Introduction to or Advanced Fashion
  • Business of Music
  • Music Technology and Production
  • Introduction to or Advanced Keyboard
  • Robotics
  • Science
  • Big Data
  • Biotechnology
  • Environmental Science
  • Genetics
  • World Languages
  • French
  • Spanish


§  Business

§  Financial Management

§  Professional Communications

§  English

§  Creative Writing

§  Economics in Literature

§  History/Social Sciences

§  Economics Macro

§  Economics Micro

§  Mathematics

§  Math Applications and Modelling

§  Computer Science



B. Educational standards in the USA

High schools maintain a school ‘transcript’ for each student, summarising the courses taken, the grades attained and other relevant data. If a student wishes to go on to college or university, his high school submits copies of his transcript to the college. College or university acceptance is also based upon personal recommendations from teachers, achievements outside school (e.g. extra-curricular and sports achievements), and college aptitude tests.

Students in their junior year may take the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT), which is a good guide to their chances of acceptance by the college of their choice. They may also take the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (NMSQT), which is used to screen the top academic students in the nation for scholarship consideration.

Students planning to go to college take national college aptitude tests during their last two years in high school, set by various independent institutions. Some colleges also require students to take Achievement (Ach.) Tests. Tests are of the multiple-choice type and aren’t based directly on school work, but are designed to measure aptitude and verbal and mathematical skills rather than knowledge (tests are often accused of testing nothing but a student’s ability to take the test itself).

The best known and widely used tests are the American College Testing (ACT) programme which is administered by ACT, a non profit organization, and the SAT (originally called Scholastic Aptitude Test) owned, developed and published by the College Board and it is administered by the Educational Testing Service. Both are standardized tests intended to assess students’ readiness for college. Taking the SAT, or its competitor, the ACT, is required for freshman entry to many, but not all colleges and universities in USA

The current SAT, introduced in 2016, takes 3 hours to finish, plus 50 minutes for the SAT with essay, and as of 2017 costs USD 45 (USD 57 with the optional essay). The maximum SAT score is 1,600 (800 mathematics and 800 critical reading and writing), with the average score usually between 900 and 1,000. To gain entry to an Ivy League university, students must usually score over 650 in each section or a combined total of over 1,300. Each college or university sets its own admission requirements, the subjects necessary (for a given course), and the minimum GPA acceptable. In some states, state-wide examinations are used to determine admission to public colleges and universities.

The ACT consists of 4 tests: English, Mathematics, reading which includes a social studies subsection, science reasoning. There is also an optional writing test. The 4 tests are scored individually on a scale of 1-36, and a composite score (1 to 36) is provided which is the rounded whole number average of the 4 scores. The duration of the 4 tests plus the optional writing test is 3 hours and 35 minutes

Students in many high schools can follow an Advanced Placement programme (AP). This is an advanced curriculum sponsored by the College Board and adopted by high schools in addition to their state-determined curriculum.

Students who elect to enroll in an AP course for a given subject complete one academic year of course work paralleling an introductory college-level course, i.e. the first (freshman) year. Taking and passing an AP class and its exam proves the student is capable of an intro-level college course. Many colleges will give him credit for higher class standing for passing AP scores. AP classes are also a great way to explore classes the student might want to take in college – like economics, psychology, or computer science.

On completion of the course, students take the AP exam, and if they pass it they are granted college placement or credits (or both).

 AP exams are two to three hours long and consist of multiple-choice and free-response (essay) questions. Each AP exam is offered once a year in May. Everyone across the country takes the same test on the same day. The will register for the exams with his high school teacher, counselor, or AP coordinator. In most cases, exams will be given at the student’s school.

Student is not required to take an AP course before taking an AP exam, but a strong preparatory program of study is highly recommended.

AP exam scoring. AP exams are graded on a scale of 1-5. A score of 3 is generally considered a «qualifying» score, which means that the student has demonstrated mastery of the subject area and may be eligible to earn college credit for his work. Getting a 5 shows that he is more advanced in a subject than 80-90% of advanced students – which looks very impressive to colleges.

 Earning college credit. The amount and type of credit the student earns may vary depending on the college’s own policy. If the student has a large number of AP credits, some colleges will let him start college as a sophomore (this is called granting «sophomore standing»).

Sending Scores to colleges. The student will receive his score report in July. All your AP scores will be included in the score report, unless he requests that a particular score be withheld. The College Board will send his scores free of charge to one college of his choice and to additional colleges for a fee.

C. AP Exams vs SAT Subject Tests

AP Tests and SAT Subject Tests differ in many ways, although they both can have an impact on the student’s chances of admission at competitive colleges. SAT Subject Tests are only an hour long, and they are comprised entirely of multiple-choice questions. AP Tests, on the other hand, can last for over three hours and always include both multiple-choice and essay questions.

AP Tests are associated with specific AP classes, and their content tends to be more challenging than that of SAT Subject Tests. AP Tests ask students to demonstrate college-level analytical skills while SAT Subject Tests require more basic knowledge of high school curriculum and they measure students’ readiness for college-level work. The student’s scores on AP Tests may also earn him college credit or allow him to place out of introductory college classes if they are high enough. SAT Subject Tests are only occasionally used for placement purposes.

SAT Subject Tests are less popular because students only take them for certain selective colleges that ask for them in the application process. The most selective schools usually require or recommend two or three subject tests. These tests are not directly tied to specific classes, so students typically have more freedom in deciding which ones they want to take. For example, the California Institute of Technology requires prospective students to take the Math 2 subject test and one of the subject tests in Biology, Physics, or Chemistry.

Most students find the material on AP Tests to be more difficult than the material on SAT Subject Tests because it’s intended for students who are working at a college level. As a rule, essays are almost always harder than multiple-choice questions because the student has to come up with an answer entirely on his own.

Even within the multiple choice sections, AP Tests demand a deeper understanding of the material than SAT Subject Tests. They also require students to possess more in-depth knowledge and analytical abilities when it comes to interpreting primary source materials.

Still, it is technically easier to get a 5 on an AP Test than an 800 on an SAT Subject Test. On most AP Tests, you can still earn a 5 if you get a fair amount of questions wrong, whereas there’s almost no room for error on subject tests if you want a perfect score.

Is it OK to take SAT Subject Tests and AP Tests in the same subject. The key factor when deciding which SAT Subject Tests to take isn’t how similar or different they are to the student’s AP Tests, it’s if those SAT Subject Tests fit the subject test requirements of the colleges the student is applying to.

AP Tests are typically held in May, and the student can take SAT Subject Tests in June.

D. Academic Challenge in Core Subjects

When colleges evaluate the student’s application, one of the first things they consider is the «strength of curriculum» in his transcript. They want to see that the student did well taking the most challenging academic courses available to him.

Colleges look specifically at the student’s grades in these core subjects: history, math, English, lab science, and foreign language. They expect the student to take each subject for three to four years.

Participating in honors-level programs or in college-level programs while student is in high school clearly demonstrates colleges that he is serious, motivated, and willing to challenge himself.

At honors-level, the classes proceed at a faster pace and cover material in more depth than regular classes. Taking full advantage of the honors courses available to the student, and doing well in them, is a top admission factor for selective colleges. Besides if the student takes the AP or IB exams he will likely start college with at least a few college credits and/or advanced course placement at the college. He may also be exempt from taking certain required college courses.

The student’s school might not offer a wide selection of regular honors and AP courses. He might want to build up college credit before starting college. Then the student should take a college-level program while he is in high school as it offers him an invaluable advance look at college academics and college life.

Students will find the most challenging core and high-level courses through the following programs.


–  Advanced Placement (AP). AP courses are designed for high school students, but the content is at the college level. There are over 30 AP courses, ranging from the sciences to foreign languages.

AP courses are available mostly to juniors and seniors, although a few courses may be available as early as your sophomore year. Students usually need prior approval from their counselor or the AP instructor before enrolling in a course. Students generally must have a strong academic record and have previously performed well in the subject area so that he doesn’t hurt his GPA and lose time for other important activities – like extracurriculars and ACT/SAT studying. However, if the student is going for the most competitive colleges, he should take the toughest core courses available at his school

–  International Baccalaureate (IB). The IB Program is a two-year high school curriculum culminating in six rigorous exams. The subjects studied include languages, social studies, the experimental sciences, mathematics, cultural understanding, and community building.

– Regular Honors courses. Most high schools offer honors courses, which are more intense and faster paced than regular courses. Most colleges, however, do not consider them equivalent to college-level work.


– College courses. Another avenue to advanced instruction is taking college courses at the student’s local community college or university during the school year. He can also take online college courses or attend college summer programs.

College courses are very different from high school courses. In most cases, the work is more abstract, there is more of it, and the pace is faster. The student will need to show initiative and self-discipline. And, unless the student takes his class in the summer, he will need to work around your high school schedule—and keep up his grades.

Some community college courses are not accepted for credit at four-year colleges. If the student is taking AP classes, he has to make sure they don’t overlap with any college class he is taking. Most colleges will not award credit for an AP exam and a college class in the same subject.

Some universities give credit for AP classes as well. For example, Harvard allows the student to apply for advanced standing if he has completed the equivalent of a year of college courses with AP exams.

However, some other colleges use scores to help place the student in higher-level classes, but they won’t let them fulfill graduation requirements so the student can graduate early. Or they can be limiting about which exams they accept. As an example, Stanford University accepts AP credit from many science, language, and math AP courses, but not for history or English courses.

AP tests cost $94 per test as of 2015. Some schools offer subsidies and College Board also has financial aid. Also, if the student passes the exam, he can exchange his score for college credit once he gets to college. So even though that $94 fee is steep, it’s a bargain compared to the cost of taking the class over a semester in college.

E. Challenge Outside the Classroom

Colleges want to know how the has challenged himself personally throughout high school. They will look for evidence of this in the student’s application essays and short answers. For example, a basketball player student might work for several years with physically disabled students and write about what he learned from them. These sorts of experiences show the college that he has the maturity to seek personal growth.

F. Admission Factors Considered by colleges

Colleges typically consider grades in tough courses most important in admissions. However, individual colleges vary in the weight they give other factors.

Colleges list the following admission factors as most important, according to The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). The order of the factors below reflects how many colleges rated the factor «Considerably Important» or «Moderately Important.»

Top Factors of Considerable Importance

Grades in college prep courses. Most colleges will consider the student’s performance in college preparatory courses the strongest sign of your ability to do well in college. Even if the student struggled early in high school, colleges will look favorably upon strong improvement in subsequent years.

Strength of curriculum. Colleges look for students who took the most challenging courses available to them.

Admission test scores. SAT and/or ACT scores usually count highly if the college requires them. Scores from SAT Subject Tests, AP tests, and the International Baccalaureate (IB) exams may also be important, especially to more selective colleges.

Grades in all courses. The overall GPA also serves as an indicator of the student’s academic success in high school. The college may also look over the student’s transcript, which lists every class that he has taken in high school and the grade he received in each class.

Top Factors of Moderate Importance

Extracurricular commitment. What counts most to colleges is how long and how deeply the student has been committed to one or two interests, how much time he allots to them, what leadership roles he has undertaken, and what he has accomplished.

Letters of recommendation. Many colleges require recommendations from the student’s teachers, high school counselor, and possibly principal.

Essay or writing sample. Many colleges will ask the student to submit an essay or personal statement.

Demonstrated interest. Going on a college visit, talking with admission officers, or doing an enthusiastic interview can call attention to how much the student really wants to attend.

Class rank. Colleges that use this factor want to see how much competition the student had to face to achieve your rank. However, fewer and fewer colleges are giving class rank much importance. In fact, fewer than half of high schools now track class rank.

Admission Priorities Vary by Type of College

–  Liberal arts colleges, which encourage students to study broadly, may give factors such as essays and demonstrated interest considerable weight.

–  Highly selective colleges attract thousands of outstanding students. These colleges typically look to the «moderately important» factors to make their decisions.

–  At very large universities, some admission decisions may be made solely based on GPA and test scores.