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Washington education and international schools guide

Numerous reasons draw expats to Washington, once known as capital of the ‘free’ world as well as capital of the USA. However, be it political, financial, diplomatic, journalistic, business orientated or personal, if you bring your family, you will find fabulous schools, but beware, the curriculum is almost exclusively American.

There is Rochambeau French International School, on three campuses (teaching a fully French curriculum and part of the Agency for French Education Abroad network, AEFE) around Washington; an elementary in Chevy Chase and a pre-school and secondary in Bethesda. However, international schools teaching an alternative to the American curriculum are rare birds, the only two other obvious candidates being the British International School of Washington and Washington International School* who both offer the International Baccalaureate Diploma.

Our candidate for probably the best start, in the world, to educational life, is the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center* – what’s not to like about embarking on your discovery of learning, being wheeled in your buggy, behind the scenes of one of the most fascinating museums in the world? There are also several private elementary schools, which may not have quite such charm but provide an excellent education, including:

Alexandria Country Day

Beauvoir, The National Cathedral School

Browne Academy

Burgundy Farm Country Day

Congressional School

Grace Episcopal

Mater Dei

National Cathedral School

The choice of high schools is equally wide, all culminating in the American High School Diploma and Advanced Placement courses. Most have great reputations and consistently send graduates on to leading universities. Amongst them are:

Episcopal High School*

George Mason High School

Georgetown Preparatory School

Georgetown Visitation School

Gonzaga College High School

The Madeira School*

T.C. Williams High School

Thomas Jefferson High School

Wakefield High School

Washington-Liberty High School

Woodberry Forest School*

Yorktown High School

The number of all-through schools is small with the most obvious being:

Georgetown Day School

Maret School

St Stephen’s & St Agnes School

The oddballs in terms of the ages taught are, Edmund Burke SchoolHolton-Arms School* and St Anselm’s Abbey School run from 11 to 18 and St Alban’s School for Boys teaches from the age of nine.

*Reviewed by the GSGI.

SEN schools

As well as SEN provision in schools, there are two popular specialist SEN schools, namely the Commonwealth Academy  and the Kingsbury Center, both of which offer an all-through education from the age of five.

For more information on these schools, please go to each school’s individual entry on the GSGI database or The GSGI article 'Best schools in Washington DC considered by expats'.

Public schools

To find a full list and other information about the District of Columbia public schools, go to

Useful information

Ages and grades

The first thing to remember is that the school years between the UK and the US systems are slightly out of sync. Compulsory schooling in the UK starts at Reception when children are four (turning five during that school year). In Washington children usually start school in pre-kindergarten but it is compulsory from age five - Kindergarten.


The US Department of Education requires both public and private schools to submit National Assessment of Education Progress testing every four years. Schooling culminates in the High School Diploma, which is awarded at the end of four years of high school if the student has a passing grade point average... unless the student is in an IB school, where he/she can aim for the IB Diploma.

Qualifications and college entry

On completion of 12th grade (equivalent of Year 13) most students in State schools will graduate with a High School Diploma. Students who pass 12th Grade by obtaining enough credits or by completing all core courses but do not meet the standard graduation requirements will not receive their High School Diploma, but will instead receive a Certificate of Attendance.

Students in private schools almost all graduate with a High School Diploma at the end of 12th grade and very occasionally at an earlier stage.

International schools (including overseas British Schools) tend to offer the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum to students completing their final two years of High School, culminating in the IB Diploma for students who successfully complete the two year course and have appropriate scores on the IB exam. 

In many universities, credit towards a degree can be earned from A levels, IB and AP (Advanced Placement) courses and exams. It is compulsory for students to remain at school until 10th Grade (or the equivalent of Year 11), but students who leave at 16 are considered ‘drop outs’ and have no qualifications so it is generally considered that school finishes at 12th grade.

You will find that IGCSEs (International General Certificate in Secondary Education) are only available at the British School of Washington. This is something to seriously consider if you think you might be moving back to the UK, at any time during your child’s secondary school years. By the same token, students applying to British universities from good US high schools will find that UK universities are very up to speed on US curricula and exams.

Advanced Placement (AP) courses and exams

The Advanced Placement (AP) Program is designed to give students a head start on their college level work.  Through AP courses, high school students can explore a full range of college level subjects. Many high schools will have an AP teacher or coordinator who will guide students on which AP courses can best suit their abilities and current workload.

American SAT and ACT

Not to be confused with the Standard Assessment Tests (SATs) of the British Curriculum, the SAT is an essential part of College entry in the US. The three hour exam (made up of writing, critical reading and math) is widely considered a measure of a high school student’s chance of academic success in the first year of college, making that all-important SAT score of critical importance in the application process.

The American College Testing (ACT) assessment is an alternative to the SAT, and both are accepted by virtually all colleges and universities.  Most colleges require students to report either SAT or ACT Assessment scores on application. SATs are offered seven times a year and while students can retake the test as many times as they feel necessary, taking it too many times is not advisable.

The highest achievable SAT score is 2400 (800 per section) but the average score is approximately 1540. To put a bit of perspective to the score, unofficially it is thought that a score of 2200 or more would be required to achieve success at a top University like Harvard but it is also alleged that Harvard turns away 300 students with perfect scores every year. To find out more, go to  

And finally…

A wealth of choice, when it comes to schools unless you are looking for an international curriculum or want your child to slip easily into a non-American school, elsewhere in the world. Don’t be too put off as most children manage the transition without many problems but it is something to be aware of.

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