Structure of the U.S. Education System: School Leaving Qualifications (page 3)
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.
General Educational Development (GED)
The GED is a battery of tests, based on courses and/or guided self-study, that when passed result in the award of a certificate that is recognized in the United States as the legal equivalent of a high school diploma. The scores on the GED examinations must exceed the national average scores of 40 percent of high school seniors (12th year students) in similar subjects. GED programs exist in all states and are also offered by private providers. The GED program permits adults who did not complete secondary school to earn the equivalent of a high school diploma.
GED certificates are accepted at most U.S. higher education institutions. However, GED holders are often expected to present additional evidence of achievement such as standardized test scores (including subject tests), recommendations, Advanced Placement (AP) examination scores (see below), and other records that put them on a similar footing with other applicants.
GED Testing Service is the national GED service, coordinated by the American Council on Education, that provides GED preparation materials, oversees administration of GED examinations, grades examinations, and issues GED transcript records. The site provides links to each state and territorial GED program office.
Other Frequent Secondary Awards and Qualifications
College Board Advanced Placement (AP) is a program of tertiary-level courses and examinations in 20 subjects, taught by specially qualified teachers, that provides opportunities for secondary graduates to earn undergraduate credits for first-year university courses. The schools and teachers offering AP programs must meet College Board requirements and are monitored. Nearly 60 percent of U.S. secondary schools offer AP courses and over 2 million examinations are administered annually. Some 90 percent of U.S. higher education institutions, and many foreign institutions, accept AP credits.
International Baccalaureate (IB) is a recognized international program of primary, middle, and secondary studies leading to the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma. This diploma (or certificate) is recognized in Europe and elsewhere as qualifying holders for direct access to university studies. Schools offering the IB program are approved by the International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO) and their regional office and may use IBO instructional materials, local school materials, or a combination. There are nearly 800 U.S. schools offering IB programs, which are accepted at many U.S. colleges and universities. Over 40,000 U.S. students earn IB diplomas each year.
National Merit Scholarships (NMS) are nationally recognized awards given to high school students who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents on the basis of standardized test scores from the PSAT/NMSQT test. Some 8,200 students receive NMS monetary awards each year, and over 1.4 million compete.
National Achievement Scholarships (NAS) are nationally recognized awards given to African-American high school students who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents on the basis of standardized test scores from the PSAT/NMSQT test. Some 700 students receive NAS monetary awards each year, and over 130,000 compete.
Reprinted with the permission of the U.S. Department of Education.
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