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

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.

Subject areas

The core curriculum consists of the following subject areas:

  • English
  • mathematics
  • science
  • social science/social studies
  • art
  • foreign language
  • physical education

Mandatory subjects

Mandatory 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.

Elective subjects

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.

Choice of subjects

The subjects (‘courses’) chosen will depend on students’ abilities and interests. If students plan to go on to higher education, they must always exceed the minimum requirements for the High School Diploma.

Advanced Placement (AP)

Advanced Placement (AP) is a College Board programme that offers college-level courses to high school students (for information on colleges, see Higher education). The AP programme gives students the opportunity to obtain college credits early and sometimes enables them to enter an undergraduate programme at a college at a higher level.

AP subjects:

  • are the only secondary education subjects with an external examination (developed and administered by bodies outside of the school), so the examinations are more like European secondary school examinations;
  • can be taken by students even if they do not sit the examination;
  • have examination grades from 1 (lowest) to 5 (highest).

See also the College Board’s overview of AP Courses and Exams.

Level of the 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 VMBO-T diploma to a VWO diploma in the Netherlands. Generally speaking, the level is comparable to a HAVO 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’ (see ‘College preparatory program’ below), in which students have ideally (but not mandatorily) studied subjects at an advanced level, e.g. AP or ‘honors’;
  • consistently good results; see grades and Grade Point Average (GPA) on the transcript.

College preparatory program

A college preparatory program’ means that students:

  • have studied mathematics, science and social science for a minimum of 3 years (have obtained 3 credits) and English for 4 years (4 credits).

Please note: if students want to study science, social science or mathematics at the higher education level, they should ideally have studied this subject for 4 years (i.e. have obtained 4 credits);

  • have studied a foreign language and an arts subject (1 credit per subject);
  • have taken an elective in a field of study for which they have already obtained the mandatory number of credits (for graduation).

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 SATs or ACTs, 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.


Homeschooling entails that the parents or another designated adult educate students at home. While homeschooling is legal in the United States, the regulations vary significantly from one state to another. For example, less than half of states require homeschooled children to undergo any form of evaluation or examination. Parents often use a pre-defined curriculum, or they create part or all of their own curriculum, e.g. faith based learning. The parents produce and sign the final diploma and associated list of grades themselves.

Please note: since the quality of the education received by homeschooled students is not guaranteed by a specific body, we cannot assess the level achieved by these students.

Online schools

Although there are many similarities between online schools and homeschooling, there are also differences. The main difference is that online schools have teachers who manage students’ education remotely (online). This management takes place within a structured curriculum, which is developed by the online school (also known as a virtual school). Parents can play the role of supervisor alongside the online teachers. In the case of public online schools, the curriculum is not based on religious principles. Public online schools use the standardised tests. Students can only be awarded the diploma from a public online school if they meet the graduation requirements set by the state.

We can assess the High School Diploma of an online school if the school has been regionally accredited in the United States. In order to estimate the level that the pupil has reached with reasonable accuracy, we use SAT or ACT scores.

Overview of High School Diploma

  • Duration: 4 years (grades 9-12).
  • Content: core curriculum, electives and AP or ‘honors’ subjects; assessment varies according to the subject and the school.
  • Diploma: High School Diploma.

We compare a High School Diploma from an accredited school to a HAVO diploma, but the comparison can vary from a VMBO-T diploma to a VWO diploma. This depends on the content of the study programme and the study results.

General Education Development test

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).

High school outside the US

A fair number of students who apply for Dutch universities of applied sciences and research universities have obtained a High School Diploma from an international school abroad (having completed an American curriculum). These programmes largely correspond to an American high school programme. Where a diploma is obtained abroad, paying careful attention to accreditation is particularly important.

For further information on the accreditation of American schools in the US and elsewhere, see Accreditation and quality assurance.