Neighborhood School Districts
Every address in the US falls within a specific school public district [state schools in the US are called "public"], usually the neighborhood around the school with strict boundaries established by the local school board. A high school district is usually broken up into sub-districts, each containing a feeder middle school; each middle school district is in turn broken up into smaller districts, each containing an elementary school that feeds into that middle school. So one high school district might contain three middle school districts and, say, nine elementary school districts.
All children in the US, no matter where they are, live within a district that defines which elementary, middle and high school he or she is eligible to attend for free, no matter how crowded it may be (even if it means setting up temporary buildings or trailers to handle the overflow). There are few exceptions to this, although it should be noted that one of those is New York City, where parents queue around the block to get their children into the best local kindergartens.
This often drives up real estate prices around the best schools; there are a number of public schools in the US that, by any measure, can hold their own with the best private schools. The best ones are the ones with a healthy mix of students (income, race etc), including a good core of families who can afford other options. If there is a lot of active involvement and oversight by the school’s parents, it’s unusual for that school not to overcome most difficulties.
Don't Be Fooled By Appearances
Some of the best schools may not have the most elaborate and sparkling physical plant and amenities, nor the most lavish playing fields. The US Department of Education sets recommended standards for the optimum number of students in public high schools, middle schools and elementary schools. They also recommend proper sizes of schools, playing fields etc.
But those standards are driven by the vast amount of suburban land available around the ever expanding cities of the US. They do not take into account the land-locked schools tucked into inner-city blocks or aging neighborhoods. Yet those schools are often the oldest ones with the most traditional local support, located within the most historic, picturesque and expensive parts of town; land-poor or not, they may turn out to be the best schools in town.
Even a school that is overflowing and overcrowded, perhaps even running double sessions in order to maximize classroom space and educate every child from their district who walks in their doors (as they are required to do), may turn out to have a fabulous principal at the helm, who in turn attracts terrific teachers. The sheer number of students may make for a place full of energy, diverse academic opportunities and after-school activities that might not be available without such a large student (and parent) body to support them.
Written report cards are typically issued 4 to 6 times a year, and in between these, progress reports are given. All individual grades are averaged to produce a total GPA (grade point average) – standard procedure in American schools, but disconcerting for parents not used to that system. Always annoying when a strongly academic child is pulled down by, say, a poor showing in PE. Another policy may be for children to make up missed work (after, for example, illness) on their own time, which seems overwhelming to some parents if there's already a rather heavy homework load, but it's characteristic of many American schools.
American students take standardized test throughout their school careers. Some are to measure students own ability and progress against their own tests the year before, some are to measure the school's and teachers' abilities and teaching skills. Since all these tests make way too many teachers and schools "teach to the test" (never deviating from curriculum that will directly affect good results on those tests), some of the tests really do result in improved skills for the students (like writing exams, in which students have to learn to...well, write).
But like the British SATs (pronounced like something you do to a chair) for primary age children, the tests mostly tell the school things about itself, and do not affect a student directly until he gets to high school. At that point, there are standardized tests called the SAT or the ACT that go on a student's record and are part of the package they need to apply to go to college (which is the generic name used in the US for university). For more detailed information on those, click to The American University Entrance Exams, but briefly, the PSAT (the P stands for "pre") is taken in the 11th grade largely for practice or by students wishing to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship. The SAT or ACT are usually taken at the end of the 11th grade or during the autumn or winter of 12th grade (Senior year).
Students can take the SAT several times, and colleges will usually count the best score in each section; but all scores and dates that the SAT has been taken will show up on the student's record. Many students take it several times if in order to try to improve their scores (NB SAT classes or tutors really can help ramp up scores), but usually don't give it another go after they've submitted all of their college applications in early winter of their senior year (12th grade) unless they are trying for one last gasp to polish up their college applications.
What Should You Look for in a Good American School?
The same things you look for in any good school:
a strong and lively principal;
engaged teachers (with a good mix of both long-timers and new young ones) and bright-eyed, interested students;
good standardized exam results (ie: APs, SATs);
a respectable or even outstanding list of colleges/universities (or other good boarding or day schools at the next level) to which students have been admitted;
awareness, attention, swift resolution and sensitive handling of problems (ie: bullying);
a good line-up of course offerings satisfying not only state or district mandates but students ranging from the intensely intellectually curious to the bolshie late-bloomer (at the high school level, AP or IB courses);
accreditation by a nationally recognised agency.
Slow Start or Important Socialization Skills?
Finally, a word about the differences between American and British kindergartens, because this is where the deepest culture shock comes into play for new parents unaccustomed to school systems that differ from the ones in which they were raised.
American school children begin to learn to read and write in kindergarten, but nowhere near as quickly and at the same level as their counterparts in the UK (who can practically write a college essay by the time they’re five). British parents encountering the American system for the first time are horrified that it’s so far behind British schools. American parents in turn find the high academic expectations in British kindergartens akin to child abuse. But the parents in both systems eventually settle down, while their children calmly adjust to either right from the beginning.