Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate

I am asked the question quite often from families with rising high school students - What is the difference between Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) high school program?

Both AP and IB programs offer very rigorous courses that universities want to see on high school transcripts. Both programs are designed to academically challenge students and help prepare for college.  There is an ongoing debate regarding the emphasis of colleges acceptance rate and standards of rigor based on students acceptance and AP courses taken in high school. 

The IB Diploma Program (IBDP)

IB classes follow a curriculum mandated by the International Baccalaureate Organization in Cardiff, Wales. IB courses include papers and IB exams graded by trained teachers and IB external assessors.

In 1968, the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program was founded by a group of progressive teachers from the International School of Geneva, with assistance from several other international schools, in part “to facilitate the international mobility of students.”

Students can take individual IB classes and earn a certificate of completion for each class or can be IB diploma students, which is the 2-year program for high school juniors and seniors. Students who decide to pursue an IB diploma must complete a specific set of courses including the Theory of Knowledge course, a course on critical thinking and creativity, action and service, which also involves activities outside of the classroom.  Students must also complete a 4,000 word thesis paper. 

Over 800 schools in the U.S. offer this program.  There is a small number of Seattle area high schools offering the IB program including Rainier Beach, Sealth, and Ingraham within the Seattle School District, Skyline in Issaquah, Interlake in Bellevue, Forest Ridge in Bellevue (independent girl's school), Edmonds Woodway High School in Edmonds and Inglemoor in the Northshore School District. 

Proponents of the IBDP point to a rigorous two-year program, which puts more emphasis on writing and research, foreign language and global citizenship than on traditional curriculum.

The Advanced Placement Program (AP)

AP courses follow a curriculum mandated by the College Board. AP exams prepared by the College Board are given in May, and are graded by the College Board on a 1 to 5 scale, with 5 being the highest. Scores are reported in mid-July.

Proponents of Advanced Placement, a U.S. program founded in 1955 and administered by the College Board (the same body responsible for the SAT exam), and it is a well-known, well-established program. Many universities award college credit to students who pass high school AP end-of-course exams allowing students to enter college with completed college course work and credits. 

AP classes typically begin in junior year and are often preceded by pre-AP classes and in larger high schools it is often used as an honors tracking system, with pre-AP classes beginning in freshman year.  Test are multiple choice and also require written original work.  Students can self-select for AP classes and may choose to take them in only one subject or across many subjects.  They may also choose whether or not to take the exam for college credit.

Individual high school teachers structure the advanced placement classes, so the course offerings and content will vary by school. The College Board has available some supporting materials, but teachers are not required to use them.  There are also optional training conferences for teachers. 

One of the benefits of the AP program is that any student may self-select a subject she is interested in and take that for AP credit, without undertaking an entire AP program. This can be true of the IB program. Students may take select IB courses without pursuing the full diploma, if the school decides to allow it. 

Recognition by Colleges

Colleges generally recognize AP and IB courses as being on a par, although they are generally more familiar with the AP curriculum. The extent to which colleges will give credit or placement varies among colleges, but generally if they accept AP scores (usually a score of at least 3), then they also accept IB scores (usually a score of at least 5). Some colleges give credit for certain scores on AP or IB exams; others will allow students to place out of lower level classes, but will not give credit.

AP or IB?

Whether to take all or some AP courses, be an IB diploma student, be an IB certificate student, or take a mixture of AP and IB courses needs to be a matter of student preference, interest, and learning style. The experience of the IB Theory of Knowledge class and the guided research class for Extended Essay are unduplicated in AP. 

As a global program, one of the major differences between the IB and AP programs is IB's focus on world history rather than U.S. history.  

The IB diploma program is comprehensive, but fairly inflexible. The AP program and IB certificate program are more flexible, allowing a student to take AP or IB courses in the subjects which interest them.  It is possible to take an IB course in some subject areas and take the AP exam in the same subject area. However, students who have not taken an IB course may not take an IB exam. Review books for AP exams are commercially available; there are no commercially available IB exam review books.

The majority of greater Seattle independent (private) high schools do not offer AP or IB courses, but feel that students are prepared to sit for the AP exams, if desired.  The recently released Harvard School of Education report of university admission policy calls for the de-emphasis of AP classes (and I imagine IB will fall into this too - but was not called out in the summary of the report that was released last month.). The recent backlash against excessive AP course load as an indicator of college readiness is highlighted in the report and it is recommended for schools teach fewer topics across a subject, but go into greater depth with emphasis on student interest, creativity and exploration. For more information on this report - listen to the podcast - Slate's Getting In - Researchers call for bold changes in College admissions -- Episode # 4F and available on iTunes

Most public high schools host an open houses for prospective students and their families in the late winter months (late January - February) and all interested families (unrelated to current district placement) are allowed to attend and hear about the programs.  This is a great way to get to know a school and learn more about their IB and/or AP offerings and teaching philosophy around these advanced courses.