The US education system explained

For families moving to the US, the education system can appear bewildering. We take a look at everything from the K-12 programme to SATs, ACTs and Advanced Placement.

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The US spends more on education per pupil than most other developed countries; however, in the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings in 2015 (the triennial international survey that aims to evaluate education systems worldwide) the US took 24th place for reading and 36th for maths.With one eye on the US presidential elections in November 2020, this statistic is something that President Donald Trump and his US Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos are seeking to address through sweeping education reforms – aiming to reduce the role of the federal government and improve school choice.

Common Core standardised tests

Although the American education system is unlike that of many other countries, in that education remains primarily the responsibility of state and local government, the US federal government has attempted to standardise the curriculum across schools through the introduction of the Common Core – an education initiative which outlines what students should know in maths and English by the end of each Grade level.Register now for Autumn 2022!However, standardised testing in schools has become a controversial issue in the US, with a study from the Council of the Great City Schools suggesting that students would sit around 112 standardised tests between Kindergarten and 12th grade. In fact President Donald Trump has described it as a ‘total disaster’ and his government is currently working to abolish the Common Core altogether.

K-12 education system

Unlike other countries’ end-of-school examination systems, such as the A Level in the UK, the French Baccalauréat or the globally recognised International Baccalaureate Diploma, US students leave school with a collection of assessments that demonstrate their readiness for college or work.K-12 stands for ‘from Kindergarten to 12th grade’. This equates roughly to a school starting age of around five through to Grade 12 at around the age of 18. The system is broken down into three stages: elementary school (Grades K–5), middle school (Grades 6–8) and high school (Grades 9–12).GIESF-in-text-bannerTesting takes place throughout the year, to ensure that pupils are on track. However, with the layering of tests issued by mandates from Congress, the US Department of Education, and state and local governments, the system is becoming confusing and unwieldy and it is this that the Trump government is currently seeking to address.Although some schools issue a high-school diploma on satisfactory completion of Grade 12, this is not a standardised qualification and the requirements are set by individual states. At the end of high school, pupils are also provided with a Grade Point Average (GPA) – an average of their results in all four high school Grades – which can help to determine their next step into work or college.

SATs and ACTs

However, colleges and universities in the US are likely to require more information about prospective students than the GPA and a high-school diploma can offer. This is why many students opt to take either the SAT (formerly known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test) or the ACT (the American College Test), both of which are nationally recognised tests taken at high-school level.“Nearly all highly ranked US universities require applicants to submit scores from one of the US admission tests – either the SAT or the ACT,” says Jon Tabbert, head of US admissions at Dukes Education consultancy and Jon Tabbert Associates.“A strong test score is crucial to a successful application, and because these exams differ greatly from those on traditional UK or international syllabi, they can be an extremely challenging element of the admissions process.”The ACT is another standardised test for college admission in the US. Like the SAT, it assesses high-school students’ general academic aptitude and a student’s ability to complete higher-education-level work. The tests are multiple-choice and cover four areas: English, maths, reading and science. They also include an optional writing test, which measures a student’s skill in planning and writing a short essay.International students can sit the ACT and the SAT from outside the US in order to gain entry into US higher-education institutions. Students can search for test centres outside the US on the College Board and ACT websites.

Advanced Placement

The Advanced Placement (AP) is another programme of learning and assessment designed to help US higher-education institutions to assess students for entry into college and university. It is developed and administered by the College Board, the organisation responsible for the SAT tests.The AP is specifically designed to be closely linked to the first year of college in the US, so students typically take the programme to demonstrate a commitment to a discipline or subject that they hope to continue studying at college level.According to the Fulbright Commission, the AP is more rigorous and in-depth than the standard high-school courses offered in US schools and compares favourably with A Levels and the International Baccalaureate, both of which are considered to be the gold-standard qualification for university preparation.While the AP is not necessary for entry into US higher-education institutions, students are able, by undertaking the programme, to demonstrate a commitment to the subject they hope to take further. And, especially for the most competitive of universities, successful completion of the AP could offer admissions officers further insight into a student’s academic abilities. 
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