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While many American international schools were originally born out of a need to educate children of American families based abroad, most now have a good mix of US and international students, with many now US-flavoured, not US-focused.  

Generally speaking, schools calling themselves American, or that say they use an American curriculum, offer a wide range of courses from kindergarten to twelth grade (roughly ages 5-18), with the guiding principal that children will eventually know their own minds better, and make better choices about their own fields of study, if they have a good sampling and basis in a number of areas extending through their high school years.  

International American schools commonly create their own home-developed curriculum, drawing from Common Core American standards (a set of uniform academic standards for K-12 math and English language arts used in public schools across most states in the US), designing their own programmes to reflect best practices of the American model of education.  

Having said that it is worth looking at how the American school model works in the US itself to gain a better understanding for the foundations of any international American school, as well as knowing what you might be up for if you need to move your child from an international American school to one actually in the US and/or if your child wants to attend an US university. 

International schools: Elementary, Middle School, High School 

The lower grades of elementary school (kindergarten through 5th grade, roughly ages 5-10) allow for a good bit of play and social interaction as children begin to learn letters, numbers and reading (‘knows letters up to L; plays well with others and handles scissors well; still overly enthralled with paste’ sort of thing). Science, social studies, languages, the arts, and physical education are brought in at various grades and are taught with varying amounts of skill and enthusiasm, in the US this will depend on the state’s, district’s and/or school’s legal mandates, emphasis or funding.  

In middle school (6th grade through 8th, roughly ages 11-13), course work is broad-based, but often with possible streams splitting off into more rigorous college-bound directions to prepare students for more advanced high school work and pre-requisites (ie pre-Algebra), or less academic work demanding competency in basic skills in preparation for vocational school (supposedly - of course, there are way too many schools in the US that do an incompetent job at either of the above, but that’s what this Guide is for). Decisions as to which stream a student follows are made by some combo of administrators, councilors, teachers, parents and student. 

The high school (9th grade through 12th, roughly ages 14-18) curriculum in the US can be made up of still more streams, such as Honours or Advanced Placement (see below), IB Diploma programme, a magnet programme in the arts, math, aeronautics etc. But all tend to have a broad-based curriculum that requires students to take a total of 26 credits in order to graduate with the basic High School Diploma. The twenty six credits are mostly year-long or semester-long required and elective courses, and include a certain number of years of English, social studies (including history - world, US and state/local), science, maths, arts, PE, possibly languages etc.  

Advanced Placement (AP) courses 

A deeper dive into Advanced Placement (AP) courses is helpful as this is often one of the key offerings that sets American international schools apart from other international schools.   

‘Advanced Placement’ means just that - AP courses are considered to be more advanced than normal high school courses offered in the US and are set at basic college level (meaning comparable to core courses in the first two years of university in the US) [NB ‘colleges’ in the US means post-secondary level schools, synonomous with the generic British ‘university’]. AP courses are curricula and exams created by the College Board (who also run the university entrance SAT exam). Around 70 per cent of US schools offer AP courses. 

A very good school will have as many as 14- 20 AP courses on offer, which can be taken over three or four years, and give extra weight to a student's Grade Point Average (GPA). See the ‘Report Cards, Grades and Transcripts’ section below. 

All AP exams are for specific subjects, and the highest score available is a 5. If a student gains a 3 or higher on an AP exam, many US colleges/unis the student later attends will award credit for that subject (although in some cases, only a 5 is acceptable). Highly competitive first tier colleges and universities, however, do have their own set of requirements (see note below*). 

Most colleges/universities in the US require students to take about two years of broad based core studies (ie, 1 math, 2 sciences, 4 English, 3 history, 1 art etc); if the university accepts AP courses, the student can arrive at said university with several credits out of the way....allowing them to skip those courses and move more quickly on into their major (the chosen course of study for which they will get their degree). As a result, that student could potentially graduate faster, meaning a lower total bill for tuition/boarding fees. 

There are several advantages to taking AP courses: 

  • they are transferable for students changing schools (a student taking the AP World History course in one school or country in the autumn can move to another school and continue on with the same course in the winter if the new school offers that course); 
  • they give students strong and challenging course work; 
  • if a US university is willing to award credit for courses taken, it can represent a significant savings on tuition fees; 
  • the standardisation allows colleges and universities to know exactly what the student's transcript means. 

AP courses are now accepted by universities for admission in over 60 countries around the world, including by some in the UK (except for some Oxford colleges), Austria, Denmark, Germany, Holland, Hungary and Poland. 

* Worth checking: some top US universities do not allow students to use AP courses for credit until their junior year (11th grade, roughly ages 16-17), and then only if students achieved 5's on at least five of their AP tests in high school. However, some do allow students to use those credits right away. 

Of course, the university only admitted that student in the first place based on the rigour of their course work (based on an IB diploma and/or a high number of AP courses!) and their excellent grades in same. 

What are the grades at American international schools?

Generally speaking, secondary schools evaluate students with letter grades (A-F or E) that correspond to numbers (A=4, B=3, C=2, D=1, F=0). These individual course grades are compiled to make a final average for the year, called a Grade Point Average (GPA). Many schools add ‘weight’ to certain grades, depending on the degree of difficulty, so that an A in Auto Mechanics is only given 4 points, but an A in AP Algebra II might be 4.5 or 5 points. This means a straight A student who has taken 8 or 10 AP courses could end up with a much higher GPA than just a 4.0. 

The compilation of all of their grades makes up a student's ‘transcript’. The GPA is calculated annually, and finally it's calculated for the student's four-year high school career.  

There are no national curriculum exams in the US. Teachers for each course organise their own exams, class by class, and hold final exams for each term (‘finals’) and mid-term exams (‘mid-terms’) half-way through a term. Those have different weights towards the term grade than ordinary tests or quizes.  


All American schools, public or private, based in the US or abroad, must be accredited by one of the six accrediting agencies recognized by the US Department of Education. Private (or independent) schools may also be accredited by other agencies (IMPORTANT: do refer to our article International Schools Accreditation and Inspections, and do beware of infinitesimal but crucial differences in wording and initials between the accepted and the rejected). 

Applying for college (university) in the US 

Class rank, grades, degree of course difficulty (Advanced Physics vs Beginning Car Mechanics), SAT scores, extracurricular activities, and community involvement (usually a certain number of hours) are all considered by colleges (universities) in the US at the end of it all - an application process for which it is wise to plan in 9th grade (roughly ages 14-15) and prepare in 11th grade (roughly ages 16-17), but which actually takes place in earnest in the autumn of a student's senior year (12th grade, roughly ages 17-18). Applications are usually due in December or January, and acceptances mailed by the end of March.  

NB: A student who cannot or does not complete the requirements for a High School Diploma can test for the General Education Certificate (GED) in the US, indicating that that student can at least answer basic questions up to a certain level of competence, but this is not a certificate that is of huge interest to most competitive post-secondary academic institutions.  

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