US Curriculum Schools: What You Need To Know

For parents seeking a possible US college education for their son or daughter, a US curriculum school may seem the most logical choice. But there are some very specific requirements that parents should look out for...
US Curriculum Schools: What You Need To Know
By Carli Allan
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There are eight US curriculum schools in Hong Kong , and they remain a popular choice for many parents, especially if they have ambitions for their children to attend a prestigious college or university in the US.  There is also, perhaps, a perception that the curriculum is ‘easier’ compared to the UK, IB or Indian curricula, since, unlike these, students are not required to sit public examinations in order to be awarded a school leaving certificate.

US schools in Hong Kong include American International School, Concordia International School, American School Hong Kong, Hong Kong Adventist Academy, Hong Kong International School, International Christian School, Stamford American School, Hong Kong, and The Harbour School.

However, before making a decision to choose the US curriculum over the others, what should parents really know?

Historically, schools both in the US and internationally offered an ‘American High School Diploma’ as the school leaving qualification. And since all 50 US States have their own ‘state’ curriculum, the diploma could nominally come from any one of them.

The problem with that is that whilst the diploma might well be recognised in the state in which was issued, it would not necessarily be recognised in the other 49! Unlike the UK, IB and Indian curricula, where the public examination system and the examination boards, ensure consistency in terms of the qualification taken by students around the world, US curriculum schools internationally have historically not been bound by any such requirement. That is now changing.

Nowadays, many countries now have very specific curriculum and assessment requirements for US permit holding schools and there is a consistent requirement that all schools with US permits are accredited by one of four US-based approved agencies - NEASC (New England Association of Schools and Colleges), MSA (Middle States Association of Schools and Colleges), WASC (Western Association of Colleges and Schools) and Cognia.  The majority of Hong Kong US schools are accredited with WASC.

Cognia, previously known as AdvancED, now incorporates three of the original six Schools and Colleges associations,  NCA CASI  (North Central Association on Accreditation and School Improvement), NWAC (the Northwest Accreditation Commission) and SACS CASI (the Southern Association of Schools and Colleges Councils of Accreditation and School Improvement). The accreditation process takes an average of 18 months to three years. 

However, without such accreditation – and therefore recognition of the quality of education provided, and of the High School Diploma being issued – a US High School Diploma could potentially be worthless in terms of its acceptance for college or university both in the US and elsewhere.

When considering a US curriculum school, do look out for the key requirements that will ensure that the value of your child’s education is assured.  There are essentially three key criteria to check - Accreditation, One state curriculum, and Standards-based testing.

One state

Any US permit school should adopt and teach the curriculum standards of just one state, applied to every subject – not “Common Core” which is widely and erroneously used as a catch all, when actually it is just English (English Language Arts) and mathematics (it is erroneous, as well, for derivations of it, such as ‘American Core’ which does not exist). Whilst there is a US National version of the Common Core for Math and English Language Arts, most states have taken it and modified it slightly.

There is also the AERO curriculum, which is a US Government-approved curriculum specifically for internationally-based US curriculum schools to follow. AERO (American Education Reaches Out) is a project supported by the U.S. State Department’s Office of Overseas Schools (A/OPR/OS) and the Overseas Schools Advisory Council to assist schools in developing and implementing standards-based curricula.

The usual approach is for schools to follow the Common Core standards for Math and English Language Arts and then pick a state or the AERO curriculum for the other subjects. Schools must adopt and follow the curriculum of one state only for all subjects, including Fine Arts, High School Geometry, PE and Health, etc. They may only use Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) if their chosen state has adopted NGSS. High school courses must align to that chosen state.  The same practice is being increasingly applied in Abu Dhabi.

Standards-based testing

In the USA, all students have to take state-based examinations for each of the key subjects each year, called ‘Regent’, ‘Star’, ‘MEAP’ etc. depending on the state. As this is not possible overseas (no US state will sell its exams to a provider outside), US curriculum schools tend to use the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) standardised tests, generally three times a year, in Grades 3 – 9 at minimum. Schools then use SAT1, PSAT 8/9, PSAT 10 and, where applicable, AP (Advanced Placement) exams in the high school, and may also take part in international assessments such as PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS.

It is a fallacy that the US curriculum is an easier option compared with other international curricula (i.e. US compared with UK/CBSE/CISCE/IB which use the 'qualifying exam system').

The assumption that the US curriculum is easier than other curricula due to the lack of examinations and perhaps a less rigorous assessment process should, in fact, be discounted. American schools measure their standards the same way that IB or UK curriculum schools do - through standardized testing scores.

US curriculum standards are set by each state as part of an approach to teaching and learning known as a “standards-based” system. This system has pre-set learning standards for all subjects at each grade level, which students learn in units or individual lessons, and which are internally assessed formatively (summarizing the student’s development at a specific time, with the aim of providing feedback on progress so far) in projects, quizzes and unit tests, and then summatively (covering student’s learning and competencies at the end of a programme) tested mid-year, and at the end of the year. Students’ overall percentage and grade is derived from these combined assessments.

The standards-based teaching approach is different to a qualifying exam system (such as those used by the UK, Indian and IB systems among others), where teaching of content and skills builds up over time towards the student’s eventual success in qualifying examinations, and where the overall score primarily is tightly linked to success at the end of year examination.  The standards-based approach is closer to a process of continuous assessment, but tested at specific time points.

In the US high school section, students work in a two-semester year and earn credits by passing a series of courses taught over a period of four years, each course with the same number of teaching hours, and following set curriculum standards and sequencing. Some courses are prescribed as part of the minimum core courses required to graduate, and a few are elective courses (half year or whole year) where students explore their interests.

All course credits and grades cumulatively build towards a four-year grade point average (GPA), should they earn the sufficient credits for a valid high school diploma. A comparison of grade point averages between schools is not generally a valid point of reference, as they only reflect a student’s work measured against a given set of standards of the school which may or may not be competitive with students at other schools, regardless of curriculum. Universities in the US will most likely re-calculate, based on their own set of criteria.

Students moving to a US curriculum school from a UK, Indian or IB curriculum sometimes find it surprising that all four years’ work counts towards their overall result (GPA) on their graduation diploma. This is one reason why schools may not accept student transfers from outside the US curriculum beyond Grade 8. Students do not repeat a year if they fail a course, but repeat that course or one similar, in order to reach the minimum required courses at a passing grade.

Finding out about Academic Achievement

Most if not all US curriculum private schools will have a High School Profile, reflecting scores with SAT and ACT scores reported alongside the mean of other students taking the test in the US. AP scores globally are published and can be viewed here.  Parents can check how every student who took the test did worldwide with their school averages. An AP score of 5 is the equivalent of a 6/7 in IB Higher Level or an A grade at A Level. It is possible to get an idea of how strong a school is in each subject and compare this to the global norm - if your child's school, or one that you are considering, does not publish this information, be sure to ask for it.

If you are considering a US curriculum school for your child(ren), do make sure that the school is accredited (or in the process of accreditation) with one of the named accreditation Associations. Ask for details of the universities and colleges that former students have attended. Use the data provided by the schools to compare results – and if this information is not available, ask for it.

Schools that are not willing (or able) to share their results in an open and transparent manner, probably have good reason for not doing so – and may well provide you with an equally good reason for not considering them further.  Do also bear in mind that whilst accredited schools have been shown to be delivering a genuine US-recognised curriculum, this is not a guarantee of quality on its own. Do check our reviews on

The accreditation process takes an average of 18 months to three years. 

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