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Young girl in american schools system

How does the American schools system work?

If your children have come along with you to the United States, then they will be a part of the American schools system throughout your stay in the country.

Before you start buying school supplies, take note: The American schools system is a different experience compared to studying in the Philippines, so you will need to understand how the system works and how much time your child needs to complete their education.

Luckily, we’re here to help.

Primary and secondary schools in America

American schools start in August or September and end in May or June. Usually, schools in America are free and managed by your state or local government; but, if you enrol your child into a private school, you will have to pay for their tuition.

Next, schools in America follow a K-12 curriculum, which includes kindergarten to the 12th grade. These 12 years of basic education cover your child’s schooling from 5 or 6 years old, until they turn 18.

Luckily, we have already adopted a similar curriculum in the Philippines, so this may be a smaller change for you and your child once they start studying in America.

If you moved to America before your child turned 5, your child can also go through 2 years of pre-school before starting kindergarten. After kindergarten, your child will enter the 1st grade and begin their primary education.

Primary education starts in elementary schools in America and usually lasts from the 1st grade until the 4th or 7th grade, depending on which state you’re in. After that, your child will move up to the intermediate level by going to middle school, which usually covers the 6th to 8th grades.

Some middle schools cover the 7th to 9th grades and are called junior high schools. By their mid-to-late teens, your child will move up to secondary school, which covers the 9th to 12th grades in high schools in America.

Alternative schooling in America

Besides going to your nearby private or public schools, there are also a few alternative schooling options which you may wish to consider. These are still recognised by the American government and include:

  • Charter schools Still publicly funded, charter schools are formed by parents, communities, or organisations. Through a charter with the local government, they can run the school based on their own mission, vision, key performance indicators, and rules while still following local education laws.
  • Magnet schools These public American schools specialise in an area of study or teaching method. For example, arts and sciences that are taught using the Montessori method. Magnet schools are allowed to accept students from the whole school district instead of a specific address.
  • Homeschooling If you would like to teach your child at home or hire a tutor, this is the type of school to choose. Even if they are home-schooled, your child will still have the chance to apply to colleges and universities in America.

Exams in American schools

Unlike other countries that test students right before they finish their basic education, the American schools system tests students at each level of the K-12 curriculum.

In fact, at least 40 states have adopted the Common Core Standards, a federal-level initiative that evaluates a student’s skills in maths, English language arts (ELA), and literacy at the end of each grade. The goal is to ensure that all students are ready to face the world after basic education.

To note, the Common Core website states, “These standards were created to ensure that all students graduate from high schools with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college, career, and life, regardless of where they live.”

While many states have already adopted Common Core standards, others have chosen to set their own standards to evaluate student performance in primary and secondary American schools. If you are in one of these states, the methods and criteria for testing will be different, so make sure to check with your state’s education department to learn more about school exams in your area.

To see if your state has adopted Common Core Standards, click here.

College entrance exams in American schools

Unlike the Philippines, where your child must take an entrance exam for every university that received their application, American schools require your child to take one exam that each of their target colleges or universities will evaluate.

Let’s have a brief look at these tests.


The American College Testing (ACT) programme is an aptitude test for students in the 11th or 12th grades and even adults considering going to college.

The exam tests your child in:

  • Maths
  • English
  • Reading comprehension
  • Science

Along with taking an ACT, your child will also submit their grades and a record of their interests as part of their application.


Scholastic Aptitude Tests evaluate if students in the 11th or 12th grade, and some adults, are ready for higher education. It is divided into two parts:

  • Part 1: SAT reasoning – This tests a student’s skill with words, reading and their way with numbers.
  • Part 2: SAT Subject Tests – This evaluates a student’s understanding of different subjects in the school curriculum.

Before your child enters college, they may want to take a few voluntary high school exams or classes. While not required, these programmes may give them an edge when they start applying to higher schools in America:

Preliminary SAT

Also known as the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (NMSQT), the PSAT is a voluntary exam for students in the 10th and 11th grades.  Students who take this test are evaluated based on their reading, writing, and maths skills.

Taking a PSAT is a step toward qualifying for a National Merit Scholarship, which offers $2,500 in financial assistance so students can enter higher education. Students who are admitted to this programme may also receive scholarships from corporations or colleges.

Advanced Placement Programme

The AP Programme was developed by College Board, the non-profit organisation that administers the SATs.

It’s an optional programme that allows a student to earn some college credits whilst still in high school. It also makes them more competitive when applying to tertiary schools in America.

Relocation Magazine likens the AP Programme to A Levels in the United Kingdom, or the International Baccalaureate programme, which prepares sharp-minded students for university: “The AP is specifically designed to be closely linked to the first year of college in the U.S., so students typically take the programme to demonstrate a commitment to a discipline or subject that they hope to continue studying at college level.”

Types of American higher education

In American schools, higher education goes through these three levels, each with a corresponding degree your child can earn should they choose to keep studying after high school:

Getting a bachelor’s degree

After high school, a student can move on to become an undergraduate in a college or university. For the first two years as an undergraduate, a student takes general education and prerequisite subjects to gain knowledge and explore their options before choosing a major.

By their third year, a student chooses their major and starts taking the required classes to earn a bachelor’s degree in their chosen field.

Getting a master’s degree

Some students go on to earn a master’s degree so they can get certain jobs or promotions. Earning this kind of degree usually takes a year or two, with a student’s time being divided between studying and managing a final project.

Getting a doctorate degree

Earning a PhD takes at least three years and requires a student to conduct original research on a topic of their choice. They will then present their findings through a dissertation.

Saving up for school

Wherever you go, we know you want the best for your child. So, when saving up for their future or sending money to the Philippines, keep your funds safe by using a secure money transfer app like Kabayan Remit.

To learn more about our features and the benefits we offer, click here. Your first transfer with us is fee-free.


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