Neighborhood School Districts
Every address in the US falls within a specific public school 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.
There are a number of public schools across the US that, by any measure, can hold their own with the best private schools (and, not surprisingly, real estate prices are often driven up around these highly-rated schools). The best ones have a healthy mix of students (income, race etc), including a good core of families who can afford other options. It's also a plus if there is a lot of active involvement and oversight by the school’s parents; a dedicated group of stakeholders usually means that the school is equipped 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 older schools are often the 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.
Report cards, digital or physical, 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 tests throughout their school careers. Some tests are to measure students' ability and progress against their own test results from the year before; some are to measure the school's and teachers' abilities and teaching skills.
Since many teachers and schools feel the need to "teach to the test" (never deviating from curriculum that will directly affect good results), some of the tests really do result in improved skills for the students (like writing exams, for 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 standarized tests given in the US in the early years mostly tell the school things about itself, and do not affect a student directly until he/she gets to high school.
At that point, there are standardized tests called the SAT (or alternatively, the ACT - both are accepted by American universities) that are part of the package needed to apply to college (which is the generic name used in the US for university).
The SAT or ACT is offered several times throughout the year, but is usually taken for the first time at the end of the 11th grade and then again during the autumn of 12th grade (called "senior" year).
Students often take the test several times, in order to try to improve their scores (NB SAT classes or tutors really can help ramp up scores). Colleges will usually look at the best score in each section/sitting, but all scores and dates that the SAT has been taken will show up on the student's record.
For more detailed information on those tests, click to The American University Entrance Exams.
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 that not only satisfy state/district mandates but also appeal to students ranging from the intensely intellectually curious (e.g. AP or IB courses) to the bolshie late-bloomer;
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. The parents in both systems eventually settle down, whilst their children calmly adjust to either right from the beginning.