US Schools: What Every Parent Should Know

US curriculum schools remain a popular choice for many parents in the UAE, but there can be significant differences in the quality of education provided by these schools. So, what should parents look for in choosing an American curriculum school?
US Schools: What Every Parent Should Know
By Lyn Soppelsa
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There are around 130 US curriculum schools in the UAE, and they remain a popular choice for many parents – in part, it seems, because of a perception that the curriculum is ‘easier’ compared to the UK, IB or Indian curricula, and especially since, unlike the other three curricula, students are not required to sit public examinations in order to be awarded a school leaving certificate.

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

Historically, schools in the UAE have 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 in the UAE have historically not been bound by any such requirement. That is now changing.

In Dubai, there are, in fact, 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 three US-based approved agencies - NEASC (New England Association of Schools and Colleges), MSA (Middle States Association of Schools and Colleges) or WASC (Western Association of Colleges and Schools). The majority of Dubai schools are accredited with NEASC, although the first truly international US curriculum school, the non-profit American School of Dubai, is accredited with MSA.

Details of the KHDA's requirements for US curriculum schools can be found here.

NEASC is the oldest accrediting body in the US; it is one of originally six regional accrediting bodies and serves more than 2,000 public and independent schools, colleges, and universities. It also serves more than 220 American/International schools in 68 nations worldwide.  More recently, three of the six associations have come under the ownership of Cognia (these being the North Central Association on Accreditation and School Improvement (NCA CASI), the Northwest Accreditation Commission (NWAC) and the Southern Association of Schools and Colleges Councils of Accreditation and School Improvement (SACS CASI). Cognia was previously known as AdvancED.

In Abu Dhabi, schools may be accredited with Cognia, or with one of the remaining three regional accreditation agencies, NEASC, MSA or WASC.  The American Community School and American International School - again, the first international US curriculum schools in the city - are accredited with MSA.

US curriculum schools in Abu Dhabi are not, however, required to seek accreditation, although in so doing, not only do they assure international recognition of their High School Diplomas, but the school also benefits from a longer (five year) licencing period.

The requirements for schools in the Northern Emirates, who are regulated largely by the Ministry of Education, are not, as yet, so clearly defined. 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

Every US permit school in Dubai must 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 directive from the KHDA is for all 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 in Dubai 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

If UAE-based schools were in the USA, all students would 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 in the UAE (no US state will sell its exams to a provider outside), all US curriculum schools are required to use the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) testing 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 take part in international assessments; PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS as part of the UAE National Agenda requirement.

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. However, the KHDA has now mandated that all Dubai-based schools use a standardized approach to calculate their GPAs so that the GPA rating is comparable across schools. Different universities will most likely re-calculate, however, 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 in the UAE may not accept student transfers from outside the US curriculum beyond Grade 8 - and in Abu Dhabi, transfers between curricula after Grade 8 are not permitted. 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.

Whilst there are still misconceptions about standards-based teaching, and because some schools in UAE have lacked the expertise among staff and a true understanding of US curriculum requirements, there has been a great variation of quality in UAE schools that hold the US permit.

This variability of quality is changing at last, supported by inspections and accreditation, just at the time when local universities are becoming more discerning as to what skills and experiences they expect from students applying with a valid diploma from a US curriculum school in the UAE.

Finding 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 WhichSchoolAdvisor.com, the school's website and, in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, the inspection reports issued by ADEK and the KHDA.

The accreditation process takes an average of 18 months to three years.  Schools in the process of accreditation are deemed to be Candidate Schools. A list of Accredited (A) or Candidate (C) US curriculum schools in the UAE can be found below:

School name Accredited or Candidate Year accredited  - np* is not provided Association Notes
Abu Dhabi Island International School A np Cognia  
ADNOC Schools A np MSA  
Ain Al Khaleej Private School A np Cognia  
Al Adhwa Private School Al Ain A np Cognia  
Al Bateen Scientific School Abu Dhabi A np Cognia  
Al Dhafrah Private School Abu Dhabi A np Cognia  
Al Dhafrah Private School Al Ain A np Cognia  
Al Durrah International School Sharjah C   NEASC  
Al Itqan American School Sharjah A np Cognia  
Al Ittihad National Private School Abu Dhabi A 2018 NEASC previously Cognia
Al Ittihad National Private School Al Ain A np Cognia  
Al Ittihad Private School Al Mamzar A 2013 NEASC  
Al Ittihad Private School Jumeira A 2013 NEASC  
Al Kamal American International School Sharjah A np Cognia  
Al Khaleej National School  A 2017 NEASC  
Al Maaref Private School Dubai C   NEASC previously Cognia
Al Mawakeb School Al Barsha A 2018 NEASC  
Al Mawakeb School Garhoud A 2018 NEASC  
Al Mizhar American Academy A 2010 NEASC  
Al Nahda National School for Boys A 2001 NEASC  
Al Nahda National School for Girls A 2001 NEASC  
Al Nasha'a AlSalah Private School A np Cognia  
Al Resalah American International School Sharjah A np Cognia  
Al Resalah International School of Science Sharjah A np Cognia  
Al Sanawbar School A np Cognia  
Al Shola American School Ajman A np WASC  
Al Wahda Private School Sharjah A np Cognia  
Al Yasat Private School A np Cognia  
Al Zuhour School Sharjah C   NEASC previously Cognia
Alia International Private School A np Cognia  
American Community School Abu Dhabi A np MSA  
American International School Abu Dhabi A np MSA  
American International School Dubai A 2018 NEASC  
American School of Creative Science Sharjah  A 2019 NEASC  
American School of Creative Science Al Barsha  C   NEASC  
American School of Dubai A np MSA  
Baniyas International Private School A np Cognia  
Beaconhouse Al-Khaleej International School Sharjah C   NEASC  
Clarion School Dubai  C   NEASC  
Collegiate American School A 2016 NEASC  
Dawha School Sharjah A np Cognia  
Deans International Private School Ajman A np Cognia  
Dubai Arabian American School A 2020 NEASC  
Dubai International Academy Emirates Hills A 2011 NEASC  
Dubai International School Al Qouz C   NEASC previously Cognia
Dubai International School Al Garhoud A 2019 NEASC previously Cognia
Dubai Modern Education School C   NEASC  
Dubai National School Al Barsha A 2003 NEASC  
Dubai National School Al Twar A 2012 NEASC  
Dunecrest American School Dubai C   MSA  
Emirates American School Sharjah A np Cognia  
Emirates Falcon International Private School Al Ain A np Cognia  
Emirates National Schools Abu Dhabi A np Cognia  
Emirates National Schools Abu Dhabi A np Cognia  
Emirates National Schools Al Ain A np Cognia  
Emirates National Schools MBZ A np Cognia  
Emirates National Schools RAK A np Cognia  
Emirates National Schools Sharjah A np Cognia  
Emirates Private School Abu Dhabi A np Cognia  
Future International Academy, Al Ain A np Cognia  
Future International School Al Ain A np Cognia  
GEMS American Academy Abu Dhabi A 2013 NEASC  
GEMS Dubai American Academy A 2004 NEASC  
GEMS United School Dubai A 2019 NEASC  
GEMS World Academy Dubai A 2019 NEASC  
Greenfield International School Dubai A 2017 NEASC  
Greenwood International School Dubai A 2018 NEASC  
Horizon Private School-Branch Abu Dhabi A np Cognia  
iCademy Middle East Dubai A 2017 NEASC  
International Academic School Abu Dhabi A np Cognia  
International Community School Abu Dhabi A np Cognia  
International School of Arts and Sciences Dubai A 2019 NEASC  
International School of Choueifat Abu Dhabi  A np MSA  
International School of Choueifat Ajman A np MSA  
International School of Choueifat Dubai A np MSA  
International School of Choueifat Dubai Investment Park A np MSA  
International School of Choueifat Ras Al Khaimah A np MSA  
International School of Choueifat Sharjah A np MSA  
Liwa International School Al Ain A np Cognia  
Liwa International School for Girls A np Cognia  
MADAR International School Al Ain A np Cognia  
Manor Hall International School Al Ain A np WASC  
Mirdif American School A 2018 NEASC  
Mohammed Bin Khalid Al Nahyan Generations School (MBK) Al Ain A np Cognia  
New Academy School Dubai A 2019 NEASC previously Cognia
Next Generation School Dubai C   NEASC  
Nibras Al Iman Private School Al Azra A np Cognia  
Nibras International School Dubai A 2018 NEASC  
Nord Anglia International School Dubai C   NEASC  
North American International School Dubai C   NEASC previously Cognia
Philadelphia Private School Dubai A 2018 NEASC  
Ras Al-Khaimah American Academy for Girls (RAKAAG) A np Cognia  
Rawafed Private School Abu Dhabi A np Cognia  
Ruwais Private School (formerly Choueifat) A np MSA  
SABIS International School Yas Island A np MSA  
Sama American Private School Sharjah A np Cognia  
School of Modern Skills Dubai C   NEASC  
Sharjah American International School  A 2018 NEASC previously Cognia
Sharjah American International School Abu Dhabi A np Cognia  
Sharjah American International School Dubai A np Cognia  
Sharjah American International School Umm Al Quwain A np Cognia  
Sheikh Zayed Academy for Boys Abu Dhabi C   NEASC  
Sheikh Zayed Academy for Girls Abu Dhabi A 2009 NEASC  
Summit International School Abu Dhabi A np MSA  
Taryam American Private School A np Cognia  
The Elite Private School MBZ A np Cognia  
The First Academy Ajman A np Cognia  
The Gulf International Private Academy Al Ain A np Cognia  
The Wellspring School RAK C   WASC  
United Private School Al Ain A np Cognia  
Universal American School Dubai A np MSA  
Victoria International School of Sharjah A np Cognia  
Virginia International School Abu Dhabi C   NEASC  
West Yas Academy A 2019 NEASC  

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