Secondary education in the United States
The first portion, middle school or junior high school, covers grades 6 through 8, while the second level, known as senior high school, generally consists of grades 9 through 12, though this may vary slightly by school district.
In some areas, high school starts with tenth grade and middle/junior high starts with seventh grade; a few American high schools still cover grades 7 through 12. American students are allowed to leave high school at age 16–18, depending on the state, or when they graduate or go on to college or other education. This school-leaving age is usually in grade 10 or 11 if the standard curriculum has been followed throughout life, without skipping grades or being held back. Thus, the last two years of high school are not compulsory, but most students complete high school and receive a diploma. A high school diploma or GED is generally required for entrance into a college or university, but many colleges accept a small number of students after eleventh grade.
U.S. law mandates school attendance until graduation or age 16, but enforcement of the truancy laws is sporadic. Conversely, students who have failed a grade may remain in high school past the age of 18, if they have not graduated on time.
Public v. Private
Secondary schooling is mainly provided by public schools (which would be known as state schools in Britain), however there are also private schools, religious schools, and within the public system, special charter schools and magnet schools in some areas. A magnet school might take any qualifed student from throughout the city and teach a specialized curriculum emphasizing college preparatory work or fine arts. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, public schools are now being held directly accountable by the federal government for their performance.
Apart from the mandatory graduation requirements imposed by the state government, most American high school students also engage in a variety of activities intended to ensure their admission to a college or university.
American universities often give preference in admission to students who have demonstrated some skill or talent outside of their classes and homework. During the 1980s and 1990s, there was an emphasis on "well-rounded" students, but this led to "resume padding" where students would join as many activities and clubs as humanely possible.
As a result, the university admission offices (especialy at the top 20 elite universities) began to concentrate on admitting people with a record of exceptional talent in a single activity or several activities, rather than a record of mediocre accomplishment in a huge number of activities. The point is to find people with the potential to make a genuinely brilliant accomplishment in a single field or to make an important contribution to society as a whole, as opposed to the self-serving types who wish to "game the system," find a good-paying job, get rich, retire early, and live happily ever after.
Although not required by the government to graduate, standardized tests are required by virtually all American universities for admission. Thus, studying for these exams is a major priority for most American high school students. There are several companies like the Princeton Review which are dedicated to preparing students for such exams. Most of the exams are prepared by a nonprofit nongovernmental organization, the Educational Testing Service.
There are also several subject-specific SAT II tests. They are supposed to be optional but have become de facto mandatory because most college admissions offices like to see scores from at least three of them.
Many schools offer year-long Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses, which are supposed to be the equivalent of freshman year college courses. At the end of the school year, AP or IB students take an examination for each course. Based on their exam score, a college may choose to award unit credit or even full class credit as if the student had taken the equivalent course at that college. AP and IB courses are highly controversial, because college admissions offices often give more weight to AP and IB courses than any other type of course. Since only the wealthiest public and private schools can afford the teachers and equipment necessary to provide a large number and variety of such courses, it is argued that they provide yet another mechanism for colleges to discriminate against the poor in college admisisons.
Compare: Primary education in the United States