In the United States, students begin their higher education after completing 12 years of primary and secondary school. The twelve formal years of education are usually organized under the “6-2-4 Plan” beginning with elementary or primary school from grades one to six, followed by middle/junior high school from grades seven to eight and finishing with secondary or high school from grades nine to twelve. Variations on this pattern exist; however, the basic state-mandated curriculum for each grade is the same.
Elementary and secondary education normally includes instruction given to children from the age of 6 to 17 years, in increments referred to as “Grades 1 – 12”. Elementary schools (Grades 1 – 6) provide instruction in the fundamental skills of reading, writing and arithmetic, as well as in history, geography, civics, crafts, music, science, health and physical education. Foreign languages – which used to be the sole province of the high schools – are now often introduced in the last few years of elementary school or in middle/junior high school. Secondary school consists of either two three-year programs or a three-year and a four-year program. These are called “middle school” or “junior high school” and “senior high school” (often just called “high school”).
Parents may choose to send their children to the local public school (where education is free) or to a private school (where fees are charged). Private schools are organized like public schools; however, they may be church affiliated, or single sex, or cater for students with learning disabilities. Many private schools are “college prep” schools, which have a curriculum directed to ensuring the students’ admission to university.
Although one may legally “quit” school at 16 years, this is commonly discouraged – with job sanctions in most states – and the vast majority of students stay on until the completion of the program at 17 or 18 years.
The authority over school education in the United States rests with individual state departments of education; there is no form of Federal (central) Government control. Each state is divided, at local level, into school districts that support their schools and pay their teachers through local taxation, state aid and Federal funds. The state board is responsible for setting policy relating to educational affairs. This includes allocation of state and Federal funds, certification of teachers and determining/enforcing the ages of compulsory education (usually 6 – 16 years). Working within the policies established at the state level, the school districts build school sites, determine instructional policies, employ teachers, purchase equipment, arrange dates of school terms/holidays and generally oversee the daily operation of the schools.
The Test of General Educational Development (GED) provides international students with an opportunity to earn a United States high school credential. This diploma is of great importance to those who wish to continue their education in an American university. By taking and passing a series of five computer based tests in writing, mathematics, science, social studies and interpreting literature and the arts at the Computer-Based Testing Center, Bulgarian Fulbright Commission – Sofia, Bulgarian students can demonstrate an acquired level of learning that is comparable to that of United States high school graduates.