A growing number of high schools are offering college-level courses to help their students become better prepared for higher education.
Two common choices are Advanced Placement classes and International Baccalaureate (IB) classes. Yet, while these courses do immerse students in challenging subjects and help them develop critical thinking skills, they often require a serious commitment from participants in return.
AP and IB have different philosophical approaches, making it all the more important to understand the differences as you consider either of these demanding — and rewarding — options.
The Advanced Placement Program was created in 1952 as a way to help bridge the transition from high school to college. Today, about 14,000 high schools throughout the nation offer AP classes to junior- and senior-level students. (Many other countries offer AP courses as well.)
To be approved as an AP, each course must be reviewed by The College Board to verify that it meets the curricular standards its experts have established. The preparation that AP teachers bring to the classroom can vary significantly since there are no specified requirements for teaching an AP class. Most instructors, however, participate in some type of professional development to ensure their familiarity with the standards and to deepen their knowledge of the topics they will teach.
Classes cover a wide range of subjects and vary from school to school, but there are currently over 30 subject curricula available for teachers to use, including courses in English literature, world history, calculus, psychology, and chemistry.
At the end of each school year, students have the option to take — and many do — an AP exam(s) to assess their mastery of the subject(s). (You don’t have to take the class to be able to take an AP exam.) The exams usually consist of a combination of multiple choice and short-answer or essay questions, and are scored by The College Board on a scale of 1 to 5. The cost to take each exam is $91. Students may be able to get college credit at the university they attend if their score(s) is high enough (usually a 4 or 5). These scores are also used for placement purposes at some colleges, so even students whose scores don’t qualify them to place out of requirements may be able to enter higher level courses as freshmen.
The International Baccalaureate is a nonprofit foundation formed in Switzerland in 1968 that offers rigorous educational programs designed to increase students’ knowledge, while also helping them think more broadly and developing their intercultural understanding. Like AP courses, IB classes are offered for juniors and seniors, but the program is also available in some elementary and middle schools across the U.S. and throughout the world.
The high school offering is a Diploma Programme which consists of three core elements and six classes from different subject areas. The core elements are a Theory of Knowledge class that examines the nature of learning, an extended 4,000 word research essay, and a 150 hour community service project called "creativity, action, service." Students must take a class in one of each of the following subjects: studies in language and literature, language acquisition, individuals and society, sciences, math, and the arts (although students can opt out of the arts requirement to take an additional course in one of the other subjects). Of the six subject classes students take, three must be Higher Level (HL) — more advanced — and three must be Standard Level (SL).
Students can take tests in the six subjects that they take, and each exam is scored on a scale of 1–7. The exams have primarily essay and short-response questions, with occasional multiple-choice questions. Students must gain 24 points on these exams cumulatively (along with core elements contributing up to 3 additional points) to earn their IB diploma. Students who don’t want to complete the entire diploma program can still take individual IB classes and exams. Like those who take AP classes, IB students can also have their coursework count for college credit if they achieve a certain score.
The IB Diploma Programme is currently offered in about 800 schools in the U.S. today. It is also a very strong program in other countries. In order to offer IB classes, the school must become authorized by IB. In addition, teachers are commonly trained in the IB curriculum and philosophy before they teach it.
There are also a variety of fees for students to take the assessment tests for the IB diploma. This includes a general registration fee of $160, then another $110 for each subject exam, plus an additional $130 in fees for each core class exam.
Read more about the international reach of the IB curriculum
AP vs. IB
So, which route is better?
While both programs are suitable for students who are willing to apply themselves in rigorous courses and can manage the inherent stress that comes along with these demands, deciding which one is a better fit really depends on what you hope to get out of the experience. (Of course, availability is also a factor since IB is not as widely offered.)
“In my mind, AP focuses on separate areas of strength, while a student that completes an IB Diploma Programme is involved in a much more comprehensive program, as students are involved with foreign language and service learning in addition to the traditional academic areas,” says Susan Rhodes, who recently served as principal of a gifted school that offers the IB curriculum for students from 1st through 8th grades.
On the other hand, AP is accepted by more colleges, making it an appealing option for students who want to get some of their coursework out of the way — and potentially save money on tuition. Since IB is not as common in the U.S., some American colleges and universities have been slower to offer credits for its courses. At times, even when colleges don't offer credit for classes, AP and IB scores may be used for placement purposes, so even students whose scores don’t qualify them to place out of requirements may be able to enter higher level courses as freshmen.
It’s also worth noting that a small number of schools offer both AP and IB, allowing students to choose which they prefer or to take a combination of the programs.
Weighing the Two Options
Hasmik Petrosian, a former student who has worked extensively in the education industry and is now manager of the UNI-Prep Institute in Toronto, has taken both IB and AP classes and says that there are some real strengths to both programs. It often comes down to a matter of preference.
“Since AP is usually at a course level, students can choose which courses they would rather take as AP,” he says, explaining that the IB program is more prescriptive about what students must take to qualify for the diploma. “Public schools often offer AP, making it essentially free or at a very low cost. Obtaining university credit also reduces costs of post-secondary education in the future. Further, students cover college-level material so they are prepared for post-secondary studies in the subject area,” he adds. On the other hand, he points out that the AP coursework doesn’t always mirror the college material, so students who skip the first-year class may not be adequately prepared for more advanced coursework and may end up falling being behind in subsequent years.
In considering the pros and cons of the IB program, Petrosian says that the, “extended essay and various other curriculum components allow students to be better prepared for the forms of study encountered in post-secondary education.” On the flip side, “IB is usually offered in private schools with a hefty price tag and the challenging curriculum may require additional tutoring for students to succeed, further adding to the price.”
Taking a Well-Rounded Approach
In an ideal world, no matter which accelerated program your child took part in, the credits would be accepted when she entered college. This would save money on tuition and also help her move through college at a faster pace. In reality, the decision of whether the AP or IB credits will transfer to the college depends upon the university’s own policies and how well she does on the assessment test.
The good news is that even if the college of her choice does not accept AP or IB credits, there are other advantages to having the advanced courses listed on her school transcripts. For instance, it demonstrates that she is a serious student who knows how to work hard and challenge herself, qualities that colleges look for in applicants. In addition, it can also help your child qualify for merit scholarships. You can gain these potential benefits from either AP or IB classes.
Many college advisors point out that, regardless of which advanced courses your child takes, the most important thing is to make sure she finds a balance and doesn’t invest all of her energy into college-level classes in high school at the expense of other interests. The reality is that colleges today look for well-rounded students, so taking a few AP or IB classes, coupled with an array of extracurricular activities, will often help students get the best results in the end.
AP Central. Retrieved February 23, 2015, from College Board
Hasmik Petrosian, former AP and IB student, email interview, Feb. 21, 2015.
"How IB is different." International Baccalaureate ®. (n.d.). Retrieved February 23, 2015, from International Baccalaureate
Susan Rhodes, former principal, Iles Elementary School in Springfield, Ill, email interview, Feb. 17, 2015.