What are the examination systems in other countries?

Back to FAQs

Governments and pundits often compare the UK with graduation systems abroad. It’s important, therefore, to know how other countries and jurisdictions organise their school-leaving examinations. Below is information about high-performing countries/jurisdictions (as judged by PISA and TIMSS tests) most often cited by pundits.

Most of the evidence is from a December 2011 report prepared for the National Curriculum Review by the National Foundation of Educational Research which summarised information from the International Review of Curriculum and Assessment Frameworks Archive. Some jurisdictions (like Shanghai) were not included in the NFER report. Other sources of evidence are highlighted in blue.


Pupils have external exams at 18. These exams act as a certificate of school completion and, depending on grade, entry into tertiary education.

Canada: Alberta

At age 15 pupils’ achievement is tested in 5 subjects: Maths, Science, Social Studies, English and French. This is not a formal leaving certificate but shows which pupils are eligible to attend senior high school. At age 18 pupils can obtain one of the following:

• Alberta High School Diploma ;

• Certificate of High School Achievement (for students enrolled in knowledge and employability courses);

• Certificate of Achievement (for students on specific integrated occupational programmes);

• Certificate of School Completion (for students with significant cognitive delays).

The majority of students receive the High School Diploma.

Canada: Ontario

To gain the high school diploma ‐ students must:

• obtain thirty credits in high school;

• successfully complete compulsory Grade 10 literacy test (students aged 15/16);

• complete 40 hours of community involvement.

China: Hong Kong

Until 2012 16 year-olds took the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination (HKCEE) after 5 years of secondary education. HKCEE in Chinese Language and English was graded from 5 to 1, with 5 being the highest. Achievement in other subjects was graded A-F with A being the highest. A pass at grade C was equivalent to a GCE ‘O’ Level pass, while an E grade was the basic level of achievement for employment purposes. This structure equals that of GCSE when it was first set in the UK in 1987 (except that Hong Kong omitted the G grade).

In 2012 the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE), designed to be taken after 6 years of secondary school, replaced HKCEE. It comprises 4 core subjects - Chinese Language, English Language, Maths and Liberal Studies – and 2 or 3 elective subjects. There are 5 levels of performance: 5 being the highest and 1 being the lowest.  Level 5 pupils with the best performance can be awarded 5** or 5*. HKDSE grades 3 to 5* in all subjects apart from Maths are benchmarked against UK ‘A’ levels with grade 3 (UCAS 40 points) being equal to ‘A’ level grade E. 5* equals an ‘A’ level grade A or A* (UCAS 130 points). The points equivalence of 5** has yet to be decided. Maths is benchmarked separately – see link for more details.

The Hong Kong Advanced Level (HKALE) is being phased out. It is taken after two years in the sixth form. Pupils usually sit 5 subjects which for most candidates include Chinese Language & Culture and Use of English. HKALE is graded A-F with A being the highest grade. The last HKALE will take place in 2013 for private candidates only.

Hong Kong has established Basic Competency Assessment (BCA)  comprising Chinese Language, English Language and Mathematics have two components: student assessment (on-line system giving feedback to teachers and learners) and Territory-wide System Assessment (pen-and-paper tests).

China: Shanghai

Pupils in China (except Hong Kong) sit examinations at the end of lower and upper secondary school although it is unlikely that pupils who do not attend elite lower secondary schools will perform well on upper secondary entrance examinations. Lower secondary exams are locally administered and their content differs across localities. The results of the lower secondary exams determine whether a pupil enters an academic or vocational upper secondary school or even leaves school altogether. 52.5% of students in China attend academic upper secondary school; in Shanghai, it is 97%.

Shanghai pupils sit a senior school entrance examination (Zhongkao) at age 15 and a High School Graduation Examination (Huikao) at the end of senior secondary school (age 18). Students wishing to enter university take a higher education entrance exam (Gaokua). In many provinces, the Gaokua is criticised for being based on too much memorization which leaves students ill-equipped to cope with the analysis required at university.

Shanghai and an increasing number of other provinces have the right to create their own higher education entrance examinations. Since 2001, the Shanghai exam has been based on testing what students can do, rather than what they can learn by rote. These tests include “integrated papers” which require candidates to show knowledge from multiple disciplines. The university entrance exam usually requires knowledge of the Chinese Language, English Language and Maths plus a fourth subject which can be examined in non-traditional ways (eg oral, written or even practical).

Shanghai universities are basing their admissions process less on test results and more on other criteria (eg overall student performance). Shanghai’s rigorous education system and expanded options for applying to university results in 80% of shanghai students entering university compared to 24% in the rest of China.


16 year-olds take three examinations at the end of compulsory education: either Estonian language and literature or Estonian as a second language, Maths and one subject chosen by the student from English, German, Russian as a foreign language, French, biology, chemistry, physics, geography, history, civic studies and Russian language and literature.

Upper secondary school pupils  (age 19) take a minimum of five upper secondary school final examinations chosen from Estonian, Estonian as a second language, Russian, Russian as a foreign language, civic studies, mathematics, English, German, French, biology, geography, chemistry, history, and physics. At least three of these must be state examinations. The remaining two can be school examinations or state examinations (the latter are integrated with higher educational institution entrance examinations).


At age 18 to 19 students usually take the matriculation examination: This comprises at least four tests:

• mother tongue (compulsory)

• three other compulsory tests from second national language, foreign language, maths, and one test from sciences or humanities

• one or more optional tests.


Lower secondary education ends at 15 when pupils take a lower secondary leaving exam, the brevet, which comprises tests French, maths, history/geography and civics education together with continuous assessment from 13-15. After one year of upper secondary education, pupils can leave or continue their education. Those that stay on can choose from a range of Baccalauréate, a technical brevet or vocational certificates.


No national assessment. Individual institutions arrange assessment at the end of lower secondary education (age 15) which may influence entry to senior high school although entry tests for these are often administered by municipal boards of education. Each local senior high school selects its own pupils under supervision of boards of education and in accordance with individual board’s regulations. National and private upper secondary schools conduct their own entrance exams. Individual institutions issue a Certificate of Upper Secondary Education at age 18. This Certificate is just one of the requirements for entry to higher education.

Korea (South):

No national examination on completion of lower secondary phase education. However, students may need to take an entrance exam at age 15+ for some upper secondary schools.

At age 18+, pupils receive either a High School Certificate or a Vocational High School Certificate.  All students who wish to go to junior college after upper secondary school (high school) have to take the national College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT). CSAT involves written tests in subject domains: Korean; Maths; English; Social studies, science and vocational education (pupils choose 9 tests from a range of options); and a second foreign language.

Higher education institutions announce annually their student admission criteria which include elements such as CSAT score, comprehensive high school records, institution‐administered examinations, interviews, essays and recommendation letters.

The CSAT is currently being revised (applicable from 2014). The pressure on students taking CSAT will be significantly reduced ready for when the college entrance system is changed to one centred on an admissions office system.

The Netherlands:

At age 15, schools assess whether students have acquired the knowledge, understanding and skills described in the attainment targets for basic secondary education (known as the first cycle). Pupils then enter the second cycle which prepares students for specific, differentiated terminal examinations:

• VMBO, pre-vocational secondary education qualification: comprises a compulsory common component (Dutch, English, social studies I, physical education and arts I), an optional component, and a sector‐specific component (chosen from: engineering and technology, care and welfare, business or agriculture)

• HAVO, senior general secondary education qualification: common component as above, specialised components and an optional component chosen from subject combinations: “science and technology”, “science and health” and “economics and society”. As well as terminal exams, pupils have to write a project which is expected to take 80 hours.

• VWO, a pre-university qualification: as HAVO but with a greater study load.

New Zealand:

The National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) is the main qualification at all levels of the senior secondary school. It allows a diverse range of students in an increasingly wide variety of courses in schools to have their achievements recognised and reported. Students completing Year 11 – the final year of compulsory education (age 15/16) obtain credits towards the NCEA.  Approved courses are listed in the New Zealand Qualifications Framework (NZQF).

Students can achieve the NCEA from a wide range of studies within the school curriculum and beyond. Each subject is assessed externally and by internal assessment (externally moderated) using achievement standards developed by education, industry and national standards bodies. These standards are in place for general/academic (school curriculum) subjects and for vocational and technical subjects.

NCEA is intended to be a comprehensive record of what pupils achieve and a ‘launching pad’ for their ongoing learning and future careers. It is standards‐based and complements external assessment with internal assessment in all conventional school subjects at three levels (Level 1 NCEA, Level 2 NCEA, and Level 3 NCEA, broadly equivalent to Year 11, Year 12 and Year 13).

Updated 20 January 2013


Pupils take GCE ‘N’ Level or GCE ‘O’ level at the end of lower secondary education (age 16). Pupils in the Normal Academic stream take a maximum of 8 subjects leading to ‘O’ level. Pupils in the Normal Technical stream study a maximum of 7 subjects that are more technical, eg Design and Technology.

Students with good GCE 'O' Level passes are normally admitted to junior colleges, where they complete GCE 'A' Level after two years, or to centralised institutes to complete 'A' Level in three years. Pupils who complete pre-university education also receive a School Graduation Certificate which includes details of personal qualities, academic and non-academic achievements.

Both GCE 'O' Level and GCE 'A' Level students can apply for entry to polytechnics. Pupils with GCE 'N' Level or GCE 'O' Level may also apply for various technical or business study courses.

Students who have completed secondary school education and taken the GCE 'N' Level or GCE 'O' Level examinations, but who do not qualify for the next higher level examination, usually seek employment.

Update Singapore 23 June 2012:  The Ministry of Education in Singapore clarifies the information given in the NFER report.  Pupils take the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) at the end of primary school (age 12).  PSLE results are used to select pupils for secondary education.  Express Stream pupils spend 5 years studying for 'O' level.  Normal (Academic) stream pupils take Normal Academic exams after 4 years.  Normal (Technical) stream pupils take Normal Technical exams also after 4 years.  In theory, NA and NT students who do particularly well in their exams can remain for a further year and take 'O' levels.  It is unclear how this transition works in practice when NA and NT study for fewer examinations.  In 2013 NT students will not be offered examinations in Humanities, Literature in English, separate Sciences, or other languages (apart from 'local' languages: Basic Tamil, Basic Chinese, Basic Malay).  In 2013 'O' level candidates, on the other hand, can choose from a far wider range of subjects.


During lower secondary schooling, Sweden has multiple layers of assessment controlled by schools and teachers. Students receive grades in each term of year 8 (age 15) and the end of the autumn term of year 9 (age 16). These grades, pass, pass with distinction, or pass with special distinction, are based on the goals of the syllabi and are based on nationally approved assessment criteria.

Update Sweden 3 July 2012: This grading system will cease in Autumn 2012 and be replaced with a scale from A to F.  A to E are passing grades and F is a fail.  Grades will be assigned in Autmn 2012 starting with year 6 (age 13).

Schools can also use diagnostic materials from years 6 (age 13) to 9 (age 16).

Pupils take national approved exams in year 9: Swedish, Swedish as a second language, English and Maths. Attainment in these exams is one factor in determining students’ grades. Although these exams are compulsory for schools they are not compulsory for all pupils. Sweden uses these test scores to ensure that grades compare to national standards.

Update Sweden 3 July 2012:  From 2012 mandatory national subject tests are held in years 3, 6 and 9 of compulsory school to assess student progress.  There are also new qualification requirements for areas including high-school studies.

Towards the end of upper secondary schooling, Swedish students receive a grade in each course and a final grade or “learning certificate” that comprises all course and project grades, coursework, teacher designed assessment based on syllabi and nationally approved exams for core subjects (Swedish, English, Maths) and some other areas.

Taiwan (as at May 2010)

Primary school (six years from age 6): Students graduate from primary school with a primary school diploma. There is no test to enter junior high school.

Junior high school (three years from age 12):  Traditionally junior high pupils spend three years preparing for admission exams for entry into senior high schools, vocational schools and junior college.  Despite the introduction of the more holistic Nine-Year Integrated Curriculum in 2004 and the desire of the Taiwanese government to lift stress from junior high pupils, it’s still common for pupils to memorize facts by rote, attend cram schools and take school-based "optional supplementary classes" during holidays as well as after normal school hours.

The Taiwanese Government is attempting to introduce a new “examination-free admission system” for entry into senior high schools and vocational schools.  It hopes the removal of high-stress exams will encourage the broad-based learning-outcome goals of the Nine-Year Integrated Curriculum.  Routes under the exam-free admission system include:

  • Recommendation by a pupil’s school;
  • Direct application by the pupil;
  • Direct application by district registration.

At the same time the number of entrance tests (Basic Competency Tests*) would be reduced from two to one.  It’s envisaged the exam would become a supplemental tool with less weighting thereby reducing student stress.

However, there’s been considerable opposition to the plans from junior high teachers, parents and pupils, and groups which say they haven’t been sufficiently consulted.  Critics complain the new exam-free admission system, due to begin in the 2012 academic year, will not solve the problems of the current exam-based system.  Pupils will still have to take tests (18 in all) during their three years at junior high.  Critics say this would result in more stress as pupils would have to achieve consistently high test scores because they are likely to form the basis of any recommendation for future progression. Critics also say the relentless focus on regular tests would not encourage creativity or research beyond that required for the examinations.

* Basic Competency Test (BCT): Multiple-choice exam taken at end of junior high school.  Pupils are assigned to senior high schools based on results. The BCT comprises: Chinese, English, Maths, natural science and social sciences.  The test is scored out of 300 – there is no Pass or Fail.   There is a separate test for pupils wishing to attend vocational school.

Senior high schools: three years at either senior high school or senior vocational school.  The main academic focus is to score well in the national university entrance exams at the end of three years.

Academic track: Senior High School Leaving Certificate (Diploma) is awarded to students who successfully graduate from high school.

Vocational track:  Students graduate with 162 credits and the Senior Vocational School Certificate of Graduation (Diploma).

University entrance: students can be admitted to university by:

  • Recommendation from senior high school and a test set by college/university departments OR
  • Taking the central university admissions examination.

Both of the above routes require students to take two exams:

  • Subject Competency Test taken in the last term of senior high school.  It includes 100-minute exams in Chinese, English, Maths, natural and social sciences;
  • Designated Subject(s) Examination to test knowledge of particular specialities (1-3 subjects).

The more competitive universities also expect students to have been involved in extra-curricular activities eg student societies, non-governmental organisations and international competitions.

USA – Massachusetts:

No qualification is awarded at the end of compulsory education (age 16). However, one of the requirements for a high school graduation diploma – received on completion of Grade 12 (age 18) is that students pass the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) Grade 10 “competency determination” tests in English, Maths, Science and technology.

18 year olds who complete high school and have passed the MCAS tests are awarded the high school graduation diploma. This is the minimum requirement for US higher education. However, university applicants are also judged on their high school record, courses taken and marks received, teachers’ recommendations and marks in college/higher education admission tests.

Updated: 8 March 2013