By Sarah Contomichalos IECA (ME), Jack Cao, IECA (China), and Elizabeth Cashel, IECA Associate (NY)
International students are an important population for US high schools. Although admissions officers are very aware of the positives this population brings to their schools, it can be challenging to understand and correctly interpret their credentials. When working with the British, Chinese, and Russian elementary and high school national curriculums, for example, it is necessary to understand the grading systems, external exams, how to differentiate the level of the student within each system, and other cultural considerations. Independent educational consultants (IECs) are key to helping schools understand how to read international students’ qualifications.
In the British system, the arts, including music and drama, are considered an important component of a student’s education in addition to the traditional academic subjects and are required up until year 10. School consists of 13 years and the calendar age cut off is August 25. Britain has a robust boarding school tradition that may begin as early as age six or seven. Students start in reception at age four and begin year one at age five. Junior school consists of reception through year 6. Senior school consists of years 7 to 13. External testing may be introduced as early as year 9 (US grade 8) in English, math, and science. Grades and half-term grades are given, and grading up until the International Diploma Program is done using A–F with effort noted on a scale of 1–7.
The middle school curriculum consists of years 7 to 11 (US grades 6–10) and is designed to be a sound preparation for the International Baccalaureate or AS & A levels offered in years 12 and 13 (US grades 11–12). In years 10 and 11 (US grades 9–10), students prepare for examinations set by the Cambridge International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) for international British schools or GCSEs for UK students. Those examinations are specifically designed to test a wide range of skills in addition to those normally associated with written examinations, such as field work in geography, practical work in science, and oral communication in languages. US high schools should request copies of any external testing as part of the application as well as school transcripts. Many colleges ask for copies of the IGCSE or GCSE certificates as part of the application process.
In China, the middle school education (grades 7–9) is the final part of the nine-year compulsory education (grades 1–9). Most of the US boarding school Chinese applicants submit applications when they are in MS. The three-year MS curriculum is standard nationwide and required subjects are Chinese, mathematics, English, history, ideology and morality, information technology, and PE for three years; biology, geography and music in grades 7–8; physics in grades 8–9; one year of fine arts in grade 7; and chemistry in grade 9. The MS education is driven by Zhongkao, a three-day strict high school entrance exam taken in June of grade 9 at the provincial level. The subjects tested vary by provinces. In Beijing and Shanghai, students sit for Chinese, mathematics, English, history, physics, chemistry, and PE. Each high school sets its own minimum Zhongkao scores to admit students. The more prestigious the school, the higher its cut-off score. Admission is based solely on the student’s exam grade. This undermines the importance of the learning process that is recorded by grades. In China, the students are graded twice each semester on the basis of mid-term and final exams, which count for 40% and 60% respectively in the overall semester grade stated in the transcript. Homework does not count in the grading system.
Many schools implement strict transcript policies to protect their academic integrity, although some are still flexible regarding transcripts, which means the grades may be enhanced as the result of parental pressure. US boarding schools—based on years of experience reviewing Chinese applications—do not rely that much on Chinese transcripts because they lack confidence in the transcripts’ accuracy. Instead, they rely more heavily on standardized test scores, such as SSAT or TOEFL, and the campus or Skype interviews or the third-party interviews offered by Vericant or InitialView. The Zhongkao scores are reliable but are not available until the end of grade 9. If the Chinese applicants apply to repeat grade 10, they should be encouraged to submit their Zhongkao scores because they accurately reflect their academic level.
Education in the Russian Federation is predominately provided by the state and is regulated by the Ministry of Education and Science. General education in Russia has an 11-grade system comprising three stages: primary (grades 1–4), lower secondary (grades 5–9), and upper secondary (grades 10–11). Basic education curricula typically stipulate 34 weeks of study with 27–38 hours per week. The school year extends from September 1 to the end of May and is divided into four terms or two semesters, depending on the school. Upon completion of lower secondary school students take the State Final Appraisal exam and are awarded the certificate of basic general education, which entitles a student to complete secondary education or move to a vocational education track. After completing upper school, students must pass a state exam to be awarded a Certificate of Complete Secondary Education (ATTESTAT).
The Ministry of Education establishes the minimum content of education and the workload of the students. The state prescribes a basic curriculum of compulsory fields of study: humanities with a special emphasis on Russian language, literature, social sciences, and physical education; sciences with emphasis on mathematics; or technology. Each school designs its own curriculum that is based on that basic standard. There are specialized schools that offer advanced programs in select disciplines, such as mathematics, physics, foreign languages, and humanities. Those elite academic schools require a special exam and interview and are frequently called gymnasiums, colleges, or lyceums. In addition, students who are interested in music, art, or sports attend specialized schools after their academic school day. Upon completion of middle school, the ninth year of schooling, some students attend a technical or vocational college or a highly competitive music or art college. These four-year colleges (called uchilishche) are the equivalent of the last two years of high school and the first two years of college in the United States.
The Russian grading system is based on a five-point scale with 1 rarely used. Both 1 and 2 are equal to failing and do not appear on student records. A grade of 5 is equivalent to excellent or an A, a 4 is equivalent to good or B, and a 3 is equivalent to satisfactory or C. If students receive a 1 or 2, they must retake the exam; two attempts are allowed. GPA is computed using the five-point scale.
Obtaining transcripts for Russian students can be challenging because sending students’ transcripts to international schools is not standard procedure in Russian schools. The most common documents available are:
• ATTESTAT—awarded for passing the Unified State Exam
• Excerpt from examination grade book—a copy of the grade book that lists all courses taken each semester, including the number of academic hours and grades received.
Reviewing international students’ applications begins with understanding the country’s curriculum and grading system. Equally important is recognizing the differences among schools within each country as well as the cultural norms that influence outcomes. To evaluate students from these systems, IECs and admissions officers should request any available external exam results as well as a copy of the school profile that the high school is providing as part of the university admissions process. It is also important to note that most educational systems focus on leaving exams, which minimize the relevance of semester and yearly grades and transcripts.
Sarah Contomichalos, Educational Advisory Services LLC, can be reached at [email protected].
Jack Cao, DY Oceanic Consultants LLC, can be reached at [email protected].
Elizabeth Cashel, Cashel Educational Consulting, can be reached at [email protected].