Education system in The USA

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Although primary and secondary education is free and compulsory throughout the USA, the ages by which children are compelled to begin and allowed to finish education varies from state to state. Typically education is compulsory from first grade (usually age 6) to tenth grade (age 16), although in many states children must remain in education until twelfth grade (age 18).


There are no mandatory preschool education programs in the United States, and state funded preschool institutions are few and far between. Many children in poorer (particularly urban) areas are covered by the state funded ‘Head Start’ program however, which is centred around preparing children under five for school.

Elementary School

For most American children, the first five or six years of education is spent in Elementary School. The first year of Elementary School (optional in most states) is spent in Kindergarten, which is designed to prepare young children for First Grade. In Elementary School children are given basic grounding in English, Mathematics, History, and, to a lesser extent, Science, Art and Music.

Middle School

The age at which children move on to Middle School, or “Junior High”, varies greatly among states, but is usually around grades four or five (ages ten or eleven). Here students can usually choose which subjects they study, and their school day is structured around moving from room to room for different lessons, rather than staying in the same room and being taught by the same teacher as they did in Elementary School.

High School

The vast majority of students move on to High School after eighth grade (age thirteen). Unlike most other western countries, the curriculum for American High School students remains extremely diverse, and students have only a very limited ability to specialise in particular subjects. In the final year of High School most students will sit SAT exams (Scholastic Assessment Tests), which are made up of two main elements. The first is an SAT Reasoning Test, which tests general skills in critical reading and math. Students also take SAT Subject Tests, which are one hour multiple choice exams given in different subjects varying from languages, sciences and history (as well as English and Math). Students are graded with a number out of 2400 (as of March 2005) for the SAT Reasoning Test, and each individual subject test is scored between 200 and 800 (with the result always being a multiple of ten).

School governance

Each state in America is divided into School Districts governed by an elected School Board. School Boards have a relatively high degree of freedom, and set educational policy within their district. Thus schools in America vary widely, not just between states, but also between towns and districts. The recent No Child Left Behind Act however, has attempted to standardize the quality of education throughout the nation through national standardised testing every year for most ages.

College/Higher Education

Many students go on to higher education, with Colleges usually admitting students on the basis of their SAT scores and their extra-circular activities. After four years of study, students can expect to receive a Bachelor of Arts (BA) or Bachelor of Science (BS) degree. Due to the rather restrictive ethos of High School education, Undergraduate study is the first opportunity for many students to specialize in particular subject areas. Students can then, if they wish, move on to post-graduate study, and be awarded a range of Masters degrees. Entrance to postgraduate programmes usually depends on a student’s performance at undergraduate level. Both state and private universities are very common in the USA, with state universities charging considerably less than private institutions. The Private Universities tend to be the more prestigious, and most of the “Ivy League” schools (Harvard, Princeton and Yale among others) are private. The overwhelming majority of students who go to College depend on a loan (awarded to them either privately or from the Federal government) or a scholarship from the College in order to afford to pay tuition fees.

Alternative Education

Private schools: Although 85% of students in America attend free state-funded public schools, private schools do exist at every educational level (including preschool) in the United States.

Charter Schools: Charter schools are public schools that operate with a relatively independent ethos, and are granted permission to exist by particular states on the condition that they conform to their own “charter”. They are governed in-house, and not by the local school board. Their popularity has exploded in recent years, and they have come under criticism for having a “magnet effect” (in that they draw students towards them) on other surrounding public schools. Often they are created with a particular educational philosophy in mind. It must be noted that charter schools are prohibited in many states.

Christian schools: All Christian schools in the US are privately run, due to the doctrine of the separation of church and state. Often they are in part funded by local churches.

Relevant External Links

College Board
Official SATs site (Visited 7-July-05)

Info USA (Education)
Contains further information about US education policy (Visited 7-July-05)

No Child Left Behind (Visited 7-July-05)

US Charter Schools (Visited 7-July-05)

US Education Department (Visited 7-July-05)

Wikipedia - Ivy League (Visited 7-July-05)