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High School Brings Advance Learning, and Preparation for the Future
A teenager holding a pink binder

What to Expect in High School

High schools across the United States have different standards, curriculums, standardized testing procedures and graduation requirements. Each state can determine different benchmarks and requirements for its schools.

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This can leave parents and students wondering what to expect in high school. Despite the flexibility that states and individual districts have, much of the traditional American high school experience is universal.

Requirements for Graduation

Every state has a certain number of credits that are required for graduation. Students must earn credits in core classes such as math, English, social studies, and science. Other required credits can include physical education, health, fine arts, government, and financial literacy.

While many states have standardized testing throughout high school, only certain states actually require the passing of tests in order to graduate high school.

Getting Started: Freshman Year

Ninth grade is generally referred to as freshman year. During this year, students adjust to more rigorous studies than they faced in their elementary years. Homework is increased, academic expectations are raised, and standardized testing sometimes takes on a more important role.

Most students are placed in an appropriate learning level for English and math classes, and are often grouped into classes known as honors or advanced, college prep, or basic/essentials. Each district may have different names for the levels, but the main purpose is to group students with peers who learn at a similar rate and require a similar level of academic challenge.

A sample freshman schedule might include math, English, social studies, and science. A student might supplement the core classes with electives such as foreign language, health, physical education, and fine art. Most freshmen are focused on trying to take required classes to ensure they will be able to graduate.

Fulfilling Requirements: Sophomore Year

Tenth grade looks similar to ninth grade for many students. Students continue to take required classes and move through the natural progression of their core classes. They might also begin to explore more specific history classes such as western civilization or American history.

A sophomore might choose to continue with a second year of a language or fine art class if it fits within their schedule.

Planning for the Future: Junior Year

Junior year opens up options for students. Once students have met many of their core requirements, they can start choosing more electives to earn credits toward graduation.

Juniors can pick classes that will better prepare them for life after high school. For students who want to study science or medicine, they might choose more advanced sciences like physics or a higher-level course in biology or chemistry. For students interested in math, they may opt for calculus courses. Artists and performers might choose to schedule advanced fine arts classes, and students who enjoy languages can continue studying higher levels.

During junior year, college-bound students start exploring where they want to study and what courses these schools require. They often begin taking standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT to prepare for the college application process. If a student does not plan to attend college, junior year is a time of exploration into vocational schools, military, and other post-graduation options.

Finishing Strong: Senior Year

Senior year is a time for students to finish up any requirements they have left for graduation. If a senior has already completed these requirements, they can opt to take a variety of elective courses.

Some high schools offer classes to prepare for life after high school, such as cooking or personal finance. Some schools offer introductory career exploration classes like accounting, law, engineering, photography, and graphic design.

If a student has met all graduation requirements, some high schools offer the option of early graduation, so they can start right away with their college or career choice.

Outside the Classroom

Students in high school often have options to be active outside the classroom. Service clubs, drama clubs, sports teams, musical groups and student government are some of the extracurricular activities offered in schools.

Many high schools also offer traditional formal dances like homecoming in the fall and prom in the spring.

Earning College Credit in High School

Students have the opportunity to earn college credit while enrolled in high school.

Advanced Placement (AP) classes are offered in many high schools throughout the nation. Students who take AP classes follow a college-level curriculum in a high school course. At the completion of the class, an AP test is administered. If the student scores high enough on the test, a college might grant that student college credit for the course.

Another option for students is to take classes at a nearby college campus and use the credit for both high school and college simultaneously. The availability of this dual enrollment option varies from school to school.

Other High School Options

While a traditional high school experience looks similar in schools across the United States, there are also nontraditional options students can explore. Vocational schools, also known as trade schools or career schools, offer career and technical training.

Students can choose to spend time in these programs to study plumbing, cosmetology, engineering, automotive repair, and more. Students can also choose a nontraditional online school and complete their high school requirements via computer.

States also offer special education schools and charter schools. Charter schools are a type of public school that is operated under a specific charter or document that defines and organizes the school. The charter must be approved by the state, and the school must meet the standards as defined in the charter.

Students who are accepted at a charter school have more freedom in their learning experiences as defined by the charter. Charter schools might approach the high school curriculum in a unique manner when compared to a traditional public school.

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