Structure of the U.S. Education System: School Leaving Qualifications
Primary and Middle School
There are no widely recognized primary or middle school leaving qualifications in the United States. School-level education is considered to be comprehensive from year 1 through year 12, and there are no intermediate awards prior to the completion of secondary school. Some schools and school districts will issue certificates to students who complete kindergarten, elementary or middle school, but these do not have significance other than as achievement markers for having completed the specified grades. Students who do not complete secondary school are considered to be drop-outs, as there are no recognized qualifications issued to students who do not complete secondary education through the 12th year. The only significant exceptions to this practice are the Individual Education Plans for some special education students, which may – depending on the plan – result in certificates of completion representing a different standard than the high school diploma.
High School Diploma
The high school diploma is the basic U.S. qualification awarded to students who graduate from secondary school after 12 years of formal instruction. High school diplomas are issued by states or local districts to public school graduates, and by the school to private school graduates. Homeschooled students may or may not be issued a diploma depending on state policy and parental preference. Some diplomas may state “high school diploma” and others may state “secondary diploma (or certificate)” or simply “diploma.”
There are usually at least three types of program, or track, that secondary graduates follow.
- General high school diploma tracks meets the state minimum requirements for graduation.
- Vocational diploma tracks exceed the state minimum requirement and add instruction in career subjects plus applicable mathematics and science requirements.
- Academic preparatory diploma tracks also exceed the state minimum requirements by adding additional mathematics, English, foreign language and science instruction. In addition, some states and schools award honors or Regents diplomas for students whose academic preparatory programs meet specific requirements, and many students graduate in Advanced Placement (AP) courses.
International Baccalaureate (IB) programs are increasingly popular in U.S. primary and secondary schools, and IB Diplomas may now be earned by U.S. students along with, or instead of, U.S. high school diplomas.
NOTE: International exchange students who enroll in U.S. public secondary schools on J, or exchange visitor, visas are not allowed to receive U.S. high school diplomas. Instead, they will receive a Certificate of Completion of Studies or an award will a similar name that certifies they have completed a semester or year or more of study at a satisfactory grade level.
Recognized Rigorous Secondary Programs of Study provides links to lists of secondary qualifications for each state and territory that have been recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as providing rigorous academic preparation. Graduates holding these qualifications are eligible to qualify for federal merit-based student assistance.
Table of State Graduation Requirements appears in the annual Digest of Education Statistics (NCES) and displays state secondary graduation requirements in Carnegie Units.
CCSSO Key State Education Policies Guide is a compendium of state policies on enrollment, content standards, graduation requirements and teacher certification.
IDEA Individual Education Plan (IEP) Page provides a detailed overview of regulations governing Individual Education Plans (IEPs), which are individualized study programs developed for students with disabilities and lead to completion of a secondary education program or the equivalent.
Reprinted with the permission of the U.S. Department of Education.
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