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American Education System contextualisation

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Hi all,

Like many people, I grew up consuming my fair share of American coming of age films (think American Pie, that kind of thing), but, not being American (I'm from the UK), I've always found the references to the Education system a little confusing, especially with regards to what is compulsory and what isn't.

To highlight what I mean, please see the below table that summarises what the Education system looks like where I am from:

NameAge RangeCompulsory?Qualifications obtainedPre-School3-5NoN/APrimary School5-11YesN/A (Primary school ends with SATs, but these are just to determine levels for moving in to Secondary School)Secondary School11-16YesGCSEs (General Certificate of Secondary Education). This is the base level of Secondary Education.College / Sixth Form16-18Yes (though it wasn't when I was this age)A-Levels, BTEC diploma, Vocational Certificate of Education (VCE)University18+NoDegree etc.
Also, to provide more context, University is the only level of education where students will commonly board at their place of education (apart from Private boarding schools of course).

So, in American films you see a lot of talk of kids "going away to college" and I'm curious as to exactly what that means. My main questions are:

What is the age range for American college students?

Is College compulsory in America?

Is it common for Colleges to offer boarding options?

Where I'm from, we have Sixth Forms and Colleges. They offer the same level of qualification but the main difference is that a College is an independently run institute and a Sixth Form is part of a Secondary School (I attended my Secondary School's Sixth Form, whereas my wife went to an independent College). Does America have a similar system? Can you get College level qualifications at your High School?

Are College and University different and specifically distinct things in America like they are here in the UK, or is it just a case of differing nomenclature?

How much of this is defined Nationally and how much is dependant on what State you live in?

I've tried looking into this but without the natural back and forth of conversation and the context that is able to provide, it's difficult to come up with concrete answers. I understand that this site has a fair amount of American users, so thought I'd put forward my questions with the hopes of someone being able to fill in the gaps in human terms and provide that personal contextualisation.

As an American, I can say I don't really get the American education system either.

So each state in the US has its own regulations for school. By this I mean what material is covered, and what is required on the big end of year test (not the final exam). Each state calls these end of year tests something different. My state, Virginia, calls them Standards of Learning, or S.O.L.s for short. You generally have to pass this to go to the next year of schooling If you fail, in elementary school, which is Kindergarden-5th grade, you parents have to sign a piece of paper saying basically "Yeah we know our kid is stupid, but just let him go to the next grade" and they pass the kid. Middle school is 6-8th grade and if you fail an SOL they usually just make you retake it until you pass, and same with high school with is 9-12. All of that is particular to my state because thats how it is here. So much freaking crap changes state to state it isn't even funny. This isn't a perfect analogy by any means because there are some differences, so keep that in mind; the states in the US are sort of like countries in the EU. Each has their own laws rules and regulations.

If the federal government, meaning the office headed by the president and friends, doesn't like how a particular state is conducting things, at least in terms of education, since that is the topic right now, the worst the government can do is cut federal funding. This would be done by the department of education (I am guessing), which is a branch of the federal government's executive power.

Now I will go on to the consistencies across the country in the education system. Math. It is beautiful. Turns out algebra is the same in all 50 states and most countries. On a more serious note, here we go!

Elementary school is Kindergarten through fifth grade. It goes kindergarten, first grade, second grade, third grade, fourth grade and then fifth grade. The school year starts in August or September, this part is up to the states, and ends in May or June, depending on when you started. If your state starts in August, you get out in May, and similarly, if your state starts school in September, you run until June.

Middle School is 6-8th grade. Old people call it Jr. High because it used to be called that when they were in the school system (for reference old people is 30+). Jr. High was 7-9th grade because back then Elementary school was K-6, but 9th was technically part of high school despite being in Jr. High. At least that is what I gathered from my father's stories. This is one of those things that I am honestly not sure 100% about.

High School is 9-12th grade. Each grade has names. Freshman, Sophomore, Junior and Senior. These names also apply to the first-fourth years of undergraduate college students. In my high school I was required to take 3 sciences classes, a math class each year, any math class, the appropriate level English class. For example, 9th graders took English 9 and all the way to English 12. And to be honest, I am not sure the social studies requirements. I took a social studies course each year. I know government was required. So real quick, my high school career:

Freshman Year: English 9, AP Human Geography (My social studies class), Algebra II/Trig, Biology, a general elective, another general Elective, PE and Latin I

Sophomore Year: English 10, AP European History, Chemistry, Pre Calculus, Health?Driver's Ed (same course), general elective, another elective, and Latin II

Junior Year: English 11, AP US History, Calculus I and II, Physics: Mechanics and Physics: Electricity and Magnetism, Junior Research

Senior Year: AP Comparative Government, English 12, Modern Physics, Multivariable Calculus

Now there is a lot of customization in high school. I cannot explain my high school experience to other Americans that aren't familiar with my local school district because each school district can be so vastly different from the next, especially from state to state. Oh and really quickly, a school district is usually just the city the schools are apart of. For example, London City Schools would be a school district, containing all schools in London.

So to quickly explain my situation. I went to an advanced school for my math and science classes my Junior and Senior years. So my schedule had less classes. I would spend the morning at this advanced school and ride the bus at 10:30 to go to my other school and start my afternoon classes at 11:30. First school was 7:10 -`0:25 and the second one was 11:30 to 3:09, but since I didnt have a class for the last block, I stayed from 11:30 to 1:30. At this advanced School I took Calc I and II my Junior Year along with Physics I and II, all college level, called dual enrollment, so I got college credit and didn't have to take the courses in college. I also did Modern Physics and Multivariable Calculus my senior year there, same thing about the college credit. I explain that story because that was my situation, and there are similar programs all across the US, but every single place is different. This advanced school I went to pulled the best 100 students from 6 school districts, that is a small radius, so the next closest advanced school probably did things similarly, but differently because they aren't required to be synchronized.

I am too sleep deprived and tired to make a table like you did so Ill just explain it in a run on sentence if you don't mind, well even if you do mind; fight me. Kindergarten is usually started at age 5. I started at age four because my birthday was October, close enough that I was 5 for most of the year. I had to pass a test though, a really freaking easy test. So easy a four year old could pass it. It wasn't a written test it was more a behavior test to make sure I could behaviorally handle kindergarten. In Virginia, they have since discontinued this. You must be 5 before the first day of Kindergarten now. This is different for each state. School is mandatory and free for Kindergarten-12th grade. Private school options do exist, so you can pay for "better" education but those schools are still regulated by the state and must meet the state requirements. Usually private schools offer additional teaching in the ways of something like religion or discipline (military school). In concept the subject material should be the same for a private school and a public school in the same school district. Students are usually 18 when they graduate High School and begin College. I was 17 because of the reason mentioned above. College in the states is interchangeable with University  in the UK. Whenever I hear someone mention the word Uni or University, I substitute it with college. You do usually live on campus with a housing and meal plan, and get all fat because you're a lazy student with too much time to eat and not enough time to hit the gym. College is 4 years typically starting at 18 and going to 22, but you can attend at any age and go for any duration. I started at 17 and should be done in three years, so the standard mold doesn't apply to everyone.

Sixth form or College is not a thing in the US. The closest I can think is your High School Diploma that is basically your certificate saying "I am a functioning member of society" because if you cannot get a high school diploma there is a problem. It is the bare minimum requirement to be an adult. There is no specialization. Every single high school diploma is the same nation wide. There is no vocational training done in high school or license earning in high school. With that said, the advanced school I attended did have programs for high school students to get those trade school certificates, but it is not too common.

We do have trade schools, they would be on the same level as college. You typically attend after High School and have to be 18+. Usually you get paid to attend on the stipulation that you work for the school's sponsor after graduating. Sometimes people live there, but I dont think it is too common to board at the trade school.

College is not mandatory. I refuse to use the word Compulsory. It is too damn big.


Watch this video for the differences between Colleges and Universities in the states. It is pretty much just Nomenclature. The differences that the video highlights are all minute and irrelevant in practice.

Every single college is subject to its own rules and regulations. They receive state (and maybe federal???) funding, which means the state (and federal????) government have some say in what goes on, but not much, so this means each college is soo freaking different from the next it isn't even funny. Transferring colleges is a nightmare. I am exaggerating a little, but do not expect too many similarities in the colleges. All the compulsory mandatory schooling is pretty similar in terms of the base way they operate across the states. I mean the entire country has the K-12 system with elementary middle and high school.

I hope this all made sense because I tired. I am struggling to see what I am typing because its all soooo very blurry to me. On that same sentiment, I would like to apologize for any mistakes and typos in the preceding essay. I am happy to answer any questions or to clarify anything.

Edit: I just realized how long my  reply was and I am sorry you have to read all that.


--- Quote from: Red_Wyrm on June 22, 2020, 11:15:59 am ---(for reference old people is 30+)

--- End quote ---

I turn 30 this week. Ouch.

--- Quote from: Red_Wyrm on June 22, 2020, 11:15:59 am ---Sixth form or College is not a thing in the US.

--- End quote ---

This is particularly interesting to me. I suspect our notion of College/Sixth form is a relic left over from when I was at school and is used to bridge the gap between being legally aloud to leave school at 16 and being mature and educated enough to attend university at 18. Nowadays the school leaving age is 18 and everyone is required to stay in some form of education after their GCSEs at 16 (which I interpret to be our equivalent of your High School diploma. Just the most generic "I went to school and this is how I did" qualification). Hilariously, my younger sister was the in the first year group that were required to stay on until 18. She had always planned to do further studying anyway, but for some reason the fact that she now HAD to really got to her.

--- Quote from: Red_Wyrm on June 22, 2020, 11:15:59 am ---Edit: I just realized how long my  reply was and I am sorry you have to read all that.

--- End quote ---

Not at all dude. Thanks very much. You did a great job answering my questions and I appreciate the effort you went to.

Just to add something, I didn't see in Red Wyrm's post, though I may have missed it since it was quite long.

College is comparable to University. However, when someone in the states goes to college, they are usually specifically going for an undergraduate degree and not an advanced degree.

For postgraduate degrees, such as a Master's or a Doctorate, no one says they are going to "college" for that, though it happens at the same institutions.

Hi guys,

I have another question on this subject.

School uniform. Is that a think in the US? It occurred to me that in every film or T.V. show I've watched that includes high school to university aged students, almost none of them (save the fancy prep schools) have a school uniform. Here in the UK, a school uniform is compulsory for almost every school, and only when you get to college / university is it no longer required.

Are school uniforms common in the US? And if so, are they mostly associated with certain age groups?

Cheers all.


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