The American School System Explained
Moving abroad is a wonderful experience, but it comes with plenty of cultural challenges – not least when it comes to understanding a new school system.
Thankfully, it’s relatively simple to learn about the American system, though it is significantly different in its approach to exams and specialisms.
In this guide, we explain everything you need to know, and provide you with some tips that will help you pick the best school for the students in your family.
What’s on this page?
The American school system compared to the UK
In the UK, formal education starts at four years old, with Reception, whereas in the US, children usually have to start attending school at either five or six years old.
Laws vary across different states though, with several states putting the minimum age at seven, and Washington only requiring kids to start at eight.
In Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, you can leave school when you turn 16, while in England you have to stay in education, volunteering, or training until you’re 18.
As you may expect, it’s more complicated in the US. In 24 states and Washington DC, schooling is compulsory until you either complete high school or turn 18.
Some states only require you stay until you’re 16 – though this is less common – while Texas has the highest barrier, requiring you to either graduate from high school or turn 19 before leaving.
How the school year works
Your child will typically be at school for 180 days per year, which is 10 fewer than in the UK, and lower than most other high-income countries, with South Korea topping the charts at 220.
There are usually two semesters – one in autumn and one in spring – with just a week off in between for Christmas. There are very few holidays in general, until the summer, when students get three months off.
An American school day typically begins at 8am and finishes at 3pm, with lessons taking between 50 and 90 minutes. This is followed by extracurricular activities in the afternoons and early evenings – a must for anyone applying to colleges.
Approach to learning
There’s less emphasis on exams in the US, with no equivalent to GCSEs or A Levels.
However, your kid’s results on end-of-year exams and standardised tests like the SAT can influence which subjects they’re able to study later on, and will determine their Grade Point Average (GPA), which can in turn affect their college applications.
Bear in mind that on any test or piece of work, your child will have to score 90% or above to get an A grade, 80% or above for a B, and so on. This is a high bar, so be kind while they’re getting used to it.
Whereas children in the UK must gradually cut down the number of subjects they study – firstly for their GCSEs, then A Levels – students in the US must learn all subjects throughout school, with some space to focus on favoured interests in their last two years.
Despite this holistic approach to learning, your child will typically only study one branch of science per year in high school, usually in this order: physics, chemistry, biology.
There’s no way of exactly predicting your child’s curriculum though, as each state has a different approach. Doing your research in advance will be crucial to your child settling in quickly.
Types of school
Just like the UK, the US offers a variety of public schools – which are free – and fee-paying private schools, as well as an option for homeschooling.
However, while kids in the UK usually only change schools once – when they progress from primary to secondary school at age 11 – American children move on twice.
They leave elementary school at 11 for middle school, then usually go to high school when they’re 14.
Depending on your child’s age, be prepared to attend graduations at the end of each of these stages.
Elementary school begins with kindergarten at five or six years old. School before that age is referred to as preschool, and isn’t compulsory or full-time.
There are 67,408 public and 32,461 private elementary schools in the US, according to the latest government data, so you’ll have plenty of options.
For context, this number is slightly higher, per person, than it is in the UK, though the number of schools in your state is what will matter to you and your child.
The average elementary class size is 26 across the US, though this number rises to 34 in Michigan and falls to 16 in South Dakota.
Your child will attend elementary school from kindergarten to grade five or six.
When your child is 11, they’ll likely start three years of middle school.
The average class size falls to 25 at this stage. If you’re keen on smaller classes, move to a northeastern state like Maine, New Hampshire, or Vermont, where the number of students per class is just 19.
Your child may also have the option of staying at elementary school until they’re 12, then joining a junior high school for three years.
Your child will attend high school for four years – from 14 to 18 years old – or three, if they attend junior high school first.
They’ll be known as a freshman in their first year, then a sophomore, a junior, and finally a senior.
And yes, there really are proms, homecoming dances, and a general fixation on the school’s sports teams. Depending on your school, the teams’ games may be on national TV.
Students are expected to keep a high GPA (with 4.0 usually being the highest possible result), throw themselves enthusiastically into extracurricular activities, and – if they want to go to college – start applying in the winter of their last year.
41% of students enrol to get an undergraduate degree at either a college or university, which are effectively the same thing in the US.
Unlike in the UK, you don’t apply for a specific course, with students usually choosing a major – and often a minor – about halfway through their four years at college.
Without A Level grades to rely on, your child will have to present a wide range of reasons why their chosen colleges should accept them, including a high GPA and test scores, proof of volunteering and work experience, and letters of recommendation.
The four years are named as they are in high school – freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior – and your kid should be prepared to have a roommate if they’re staying on campus.
American school system grades
In most cases, your child’s grade in the US will be one lower than their year in the UK – so if they’re moving in the middle of year four, they’ll be in third grade in the US.
This isn’t particularly confusing, fortunately, and you’ll soon adapt to this new way of speaking – just drop ‘sixth form’ from your vocabulary, and you’ll be fine.
|Age of student||UK||US|
|6-7||Year 2||Grade 1|
|7-8||Year 3||Grade 2|
|8-9||Year 4||Grade 3|
|9-10||Year 5||Grade 4|
|10-11||Year 6||Grade 5|
|11-12||Year 7||Grade 6|
|12-13||Year 8||Grade 7|
|13-14||Year 9||Grade 8|
|14-15||Year 10||Grade 9|
|15-16||Year 11||Grade 10|
|16-17||Year 12||Grade 11|
|17-18||Year 13||Grade 12|
American school qualifications
At the end of their school career, assuming everything goes well, your child will receive their high school diploma.
There is no American equivalent to GCSEs or A Levels, so all they’ll have apart from their diploma will be their high school transcript – a record of all their classes, grades, and academic accomplishments.
This record will include what they scored on their SAT, the national standardised test which students usually take in their junior year of high school.
Finishing high school with a diploma – especially one with a high GPA and SAT score – will set your child up excellently for the next stage of their life, whether or not they go to college.
Is the American school system good?
The American school system is very good, as you’d expect from one of the wealthiest nations on Earth – but it’s far from the best.
The US ranks 13th for reading ability, 18th for science, and 37th for maths, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)’s latest PISA rankings.
The UK fares slightly better in the science rankings, slightly worse in the reading section, and significantly better at maths.
But this is just an average. Your child’s experience of American education will depend entirely on the state, school, and teachers they end up with.
As with every developed nation, there are plenty of fantastic schools where your kid will receive the outstanding education they deserve.
Public schools and private schools in the US
There are 98,469 public schools and 32,461 private schools in the US, according to government data – meaning there are three times more public institutions than private ones.
However, because private schools typically accept fewer pupils, only 10% of kids in the US actually attend one.
67% of students at private schools are white, while 11% are Hispanic, 9% are Black, and 6% are Asian.
In public schools, 47% are white, 27% are Hispanic, 15% are Black, and 5% are Asian.
As well as being more diverse – and free – public schools in the US also generally maintain a high standard, going against the popular national opinion that they’re poor.
The best schools in the US
The best school in the US is Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia.
This STEM-focused public high school of 1,800 students offers a 99% graduation rate, a top-quality education, and the best college preparation available.
72% of students take Advanced Placement classes – which are taught at a college level – and the average SAT score of 1520 is well above the average score of 1060.
If you’re looking for a private school, The Nueva School in west California is by far your best choice.
Your kid can spend their entire school career at this school where the student-teacher ratio is just six to one, the average SAT score is 1510, and 62% of its pupils are people of colour.
Be warned though: annual fees start at $40,000 (£32,100), then rise to $53,350 (£42,800) in the fifth grade. 20% of students receive financial aid.
The best US state for education
Washington is the best US state for education.
This northwestern state is the only place in the country where more than half of the people have a bachelor’s degree or higher.
In fact, an astounding 60% get their college diploma, according to government data – well ahead of the next best state, Massachusetts, which has a 45% rate despite being home to Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Boston College.
34% of Washingtonians have an advanced degree, which again is the highest proportion in the US – ahead of Massachusetts on 20% – plus 92% of Washington’s high schoolers graduate, which is an enviable record.
If you’re picking colleges in Washington, you can choose between big schools like the University of Washington, and small, interesting institutions like Whitman College, safe in the knowledge that there are plenty of world-class options.
The American school system focuses less on big, one-off exams and honing your skills in a given area, and more on general grades and knowledge.
You and your child can absolutely thrive in this system, whether they join one of the country’s many excellent public schools or go private.
Just do the research beforehand – preferably with your kid alongside you – and you’ll set them up for academic success.