Primary and secondary education in the US

In the United States, elementary/primary education lasts 6 years. Secondary education also lasts 6 years. There are both public and private schools.

How these 12 grades are divided varies from one state or district to another. The following divisions are common:

  • 6 + 3 + 3 (elementary + junior high + high school);
  • 6 + 2 + 4 (elementary + middle school + high school);
  • 8 + 4 (elementary + high school).

At any rate, secondary education begins in the 7th year, i.e. when students start receiving instruction in individual subjects from subject teachers.

Secondary education is predominantly general in nature. There are differences according to the high school and region. For example, students can sometimes take vocational-technical subjects as well.

High School Diploma

Due to the differences in programme content (the levels of the subjects and the subjects chosen), a High School Diploma can equate to anything from a diploma to a diploma in the Netherlands. The subjects (‘courses’) chosen will depend on students’ abilities and interests.

  • : 4 years (grades 9-12).
  • Content: core curriculum, compulsory subjects, electives and AP or ‘honors’ subjects; assessment varies according to the subject and the school. The core curriculum consists of the following subject areas:
    • English
    • mathematics
    • science
    • social science/social studies
    • art
    • foreign language
    • physical education
      Compulsory subjects, or in American: ‘mandatory courses’ or ‘core courses’, are offered in each subject area. Each year, students study 1 ‘course’ at an ever higher level. In the case of mathematics, for example, students generally start with algebra 1, and then geometry and finally algebra 2. As well as ‘mandatory courses’, there are also ‘elective courses’ (electives) which students can take in all subject areas. Electives for English include creative writing, world literature and film study, while electives for mathematics include trigonometry or computer math. At good schools, the choice of electives can be quite broad. Students can study electives at an ever higher level.
  • Function of the diploma: if students plan to go on to higher education, they must always exceed the minimum requirements for the High School Diploma.
  • Diploma: High School Diploma.

HAVO-level High School Diploma

A combination of the following characteristics can result in a High School Diploma being compared to a HAVO diploma:

  • a completed ‘college preparatory program’, in which students have ideally (but not mandatorily) studied subjects at an advanced level, e.g. AP-subjects or ‘honors’ subjects;
  • consistently good results; see grades and Grade Point Average ( ) on the transcript.

VWO-level High School Diploma

In order to be admitted to a more selective university or college, students must have followed a highly academic high school curriculum and achieved good results. By highly academic curriculum, we mean an extra challenging college preparatory curriculum.

A High School Diploma may be compared to a VWO diploma if students meet 1 of the following 3 requirements:

  1. Students have obtained a grade of 3, 4 or 5 in at least 4 AP subjects in the AP examinations. Please note: this requirement only applies to AP subjects concluded with an official AP examination. In addition to the official transcript, the AP exam score report is required. This document will be forwarded by the College Board (the organisation that manages the examinations).
  2. Students have not sat the AP examinations set by the College Board but:
  • have passed at least 4 AP subjects;
  • have additionally taken several honors’ subjects;
  • have consistently obtained very good results.
  1. Students have not passed any AP or ‘honors’ subjects, but the curriculum comprises a combination of the following characteristics:
  • In the case of mathematics, the requirements of algebra 1 and 2 and geometry have been supplemented with calculus or trigonometry.
  • In the case of science, the subjects biology, chemistry and physics (or earth science) have been supplemented with another science elective such as environmental science or geology.
  • At least 18 credits have been obtained in academic subjects, including 4 credits in mathematics, 4 in science, 4 in social studies, 4 in English and 1 in foreign language.
  • A Grade Point Average (GPA) of 3.0 or above has been obtained.
  • A high score has been obtained in the or ACT, i.e. the college readiness tests which measure students’ aptitude for mathematics and English, among other things.

VMBO-T level High School Diploma

A High School Diploma is not often compared to a VMBO-T level diploma. Indications include:

  • an inadequate score in the general subjects;
  • a very simple range of subjects with a very low GPA;
  • a low score in the SATs or ACTs.

General Education Development credential (GED)

Anyone who did not finish school but still wishes to obtain a secondary school diploma can sit an examination known as a GED test. This test enables them to obtain a High School Equivalency Diploma or General Educational Development credential, also known as a GED credential or GED for short.

  • Duration: a series of tests.
  • Content: a multiple-choice test in 4 subjects – mathematics, science, social science and reasoning through language arts.
  • Diploma: High School Equivalency Diploma or General Educational Development credential (GED credential).

We compare a High School Equivalency Diploma or GED credential to a VMBO-T diploma (theoretical pathway).