Secondary education in the United States

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As part of education in the United States, secondary education usually covers grades 5, 6, or 7 through twelve.


Middle school (Grades 5/6/7 through 8)

Main article: Middle school

"Middle school", "junior high school", and "intermediate school" are all interchangeable names for schools that begin in 6th or 7th grade and end in 8th, though they may sometimes include 9th grade as well. The term "junior high school" and the arrangement beginning with 7th grade are becoming less common.

At this time, students begin to enroll in class schedules where they take classes from several teachers in a given day, unlike in elementary school where all classes are with the same teacher. The classes are usually a strict set of a science, math, English, social science courses, interspersed with a reading and/or technology class. Every year from kindergarten through ninth grade usually also includes a mandatory physical education or P.E. class. Student-chosen courses, known as electives, are generally limited to only one or two classes.

High school (Grades 9 through 12)

Main article: High school

High school runs from grades 9 through 12. Some school districts deviate from this formula. The most widely seen difference is to include 9th grade in middle school, though it is a relatively old practice which is disappearing. In high school, students obtain much more control of their education, and may choose even their core classes.

Basic curricular structure

Students in the United States, unlike their counterparts in other developed nations, do not begin to specialize into a narrow field of study until their sophomore year of college. At the high school level, they mostly take a broad variety of classes, without special emphasis. The curriculum varies widely in quality and rigidity; for example, some states consider 70 (on a 100 point scale) to be a passing grade while others consider it to be 75.

The following are the typical minimum course sequences that one must take in order to obtain a high school diploma; they are not indicative of the necessary minimum courses or course rigor required for attending college in the United States:

  • Science (biology, chemistry, and physics)
  • Mathematics (usually three years minimum, including algebra, geometry, algebra II, and/or pre-calculus/trigonometry)
  • English (four years)
  • Social Science (various history, government, and economics courses, always including American history)
  • Physical education (at least one year)

Many states require a "Health" course in which students learn anatomy, nutrition, and first aid; the basic concepts of sexuality and birth control; and why to avoid destructive substances like illegal drugs, cigarettes, and alcohol.


High schools offer a wide variety of elective courses, although the availability of such courses depends upon each particular school's financial situation.

Common types of electives include:

Additional options for gifted students

Main article: Gifted education

Not all high schools contain the same rigorous coursework as others. Most high and middle schools have classes known as "honors" classes for motivated and gifted students, where the quality of education is usually higher and much tougher.

If funds are available, a high school may provide Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses, which are special forms of honors classes. AP or IB courses are usually taken during the third or fourth years of high school, either as a replacement for a typical third-year course (e.g., taking AP U.S. History as a replacement for standard U.S. History), a refresher of an earlier course (e.g., taking AP Biology in the fourth year even though one already took Biology as a freshman), or simply as a way to study something interesting during one's senior year (e.g., AP Economics).

Most postsecondary institutions take AP or IB exam results into consideration in the admissions process. Because AP and IB courses are supposed to be the equivalent of freshman year college courses, postsecondary institutions may grant unit credit which enables students to graduate early. Both public schools and private schools in wealthy neighborhoods are able to provide many more AP and IB course options than impoverished inner-city high schools, and this difference is seen as a major cause of the differing outcomes for their graduates.

Also, in states with well-developed community college systems, there are often mechanisms by which gifted students may seek permission from their school district to attend community college courses full-time during the summer, and during weekends and evenings during the school year. The units earned this way can often be transferred to one's university, and can facilitate early graduation.

See also

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