Challenging Smart Students: Do AP and the IB Provide the Right Challenge?

Oct 30, 12 Challenging Smart Students: Do AP and the IB Provide the Right Challenge?

Personalized, student-centred learning is the centerpiece of the B.C. Ministry of Education’s new plan to enrich student learning through “individualization” aimed at providing high quality teaching and learning, more flexibility and choice, and fuller utilization of the power of technology.  Enriched high school programs like The Challenge Program at  Vancouver’s  Eric Hamber Secondary School seek to build upon previous gifted education programs in innovative ways.  A recent school visit on October 25, as part of an International Dialogue study group, revealed that this program is “giving a home” to students labelled as “gifted” but remains very much a work -in-progress.

The Eric Hamber “Challenge Program,” while well-intentioned, is now somewhat unique because most Canadian school systems have tended to utilize accelerated academic programs, such as International Baccalaureate (IB) and Advanced Placement (AP), to achieve those purposes.  Indeed, the steady growth of these two competing programs has supplanted many “gifted student” programs in high schools across Canada as in the United States. It also begs the fundamental question – which of the two programs provides a better challenge for academically-able high school students?

Surveying academic public high schools in the United States, the dominance of the IB and AP is abundantly clear.  Choosing sides in the AP vs. IB debate sparks fierce debate in influential newspapers and magazines, like The Washington Post and US News and World Report and in the family homes of university-bound high school students in virtually every city and most towns of any size.

Advanced Placement Canada, based in Victoria, BC, holds sway in B.C. and Ontario and is now offered in 587 schools in every province and territory, except Nunavut.  The International Baccalaureate now claims to have enlisted 320 IB World Schools, but only 147 offer the senior IB Diploma Program.  University bound students and their parents are plied with the allure of gaining an advantage in seeking university admission and securing advanced standing in a few subjects.  In a province like Nova Scotia, the IB has, since 2007, been sanctioned as the “official” high school enrichment program.  Today, some 16 high schools are IB Diploma Program Schools, representing over 10 per cent of the Canadian total and the jurisdiction with the highest concentration of such programs in North America.

A highly influential 2007 study by the U.S. Thomas B. Fordham Institute has served as an important touchstone for savvy and academically-inclined students and parents.  That study took a very favourable view of such academic courses offering “rigorous pre-college curriculum” in high school. It posed the critical question on the minds of students and parents –“Do the AP and the IB Deserve Gold Star Status?”  Both of these programs, according to Chester Finn, “offer something very much needed in today’s secondary education system: high academic standards combined with rigorous exams aligned to those standards.”

Both the AP and the IB were proliferating because were meeting the demand for programs of “academic excellence” and filling a void in state school systems.  “Students,” in Finn’s words,” are also expected to make sense of complex, and sometimes contradictory, materials; to write and defend their opinions about these materials intelligently; and to apply their knowledge in creative and productive ways. These are the skills that will serve them well in later years….” In that comparative analysis, the IB program came out slightly ahead, based upon a critical review of AP and IB courses in four subjects, English, mathematics, biology, and history.  There was considerable dispute over the Fordham report’s assessment of Mathematics courses too heavily dependent upon technological tools like graphing calculators.

Advanced Placement courses once were totally dominant in the United States, a nation with some 22,000 high schools.  First introduced in 1955, by 2006, over one million U.S. students took over 2 million AP examinations, including over  346,000(2008) in the most popular course, United States History.  In Canada, by 2007, 491 high schools were offering 19,274 examinations in every province except P.E.I.  AS of 2010, some 28.3 per cent of American high school students took an AP exam and 32.6 per cent of public high schools offered AP  courses in the four core subject areas – English, mathematics, science and social studies.  More recently, the IB is gaining ground, to the point where more than 778 American schools offer the IB Diploma Program.

Which is better at engaging students in academic challenges and at promoting critical thinking?

Most objective observers tend to give the edge to the IB because it is a fully-developed program encompassing academic athletic, cultural, and social development components.   Seasoned education observer Jay Mathews of The Washington Post contends that “both programs are top notch.” When pressed to choose one over the other, he gave a slight edge to the IB.  Why?  In his words, “because the exams demand more writing, having no multiple choice exams as the AP exams do, and because the IB program includes a 4,000 word essay requirement that the AP lacks.”  He noted, however, that in the United States, it was still easier to get college credits for AP exam scores because universities have been slower to accord recognition to the IB exam-based course results.

After helping to introduce the IB at Upper Canada College in 1997 and heading both a leading Canadian AP school and a leading IB school, I would also rate the IB as superior in terms of promoting deeper learning and student engagement.   The IB focus on providing a full, well-rounded program gives it the decided edge and makes t5he AP look like just a mix and match menu of accelerated courses. The additional IB components, namely the Extended Essay, the Theory-of-Knowledge course, and Creativity-Action-Service (CAS), set it apart as a pretty thorough challenge for high school students. The IB requirement to conduct a 4,000 word Extended Essay (based upon original research)  means, in many cases, students have to range far beyond high schools to find the latest research.

If the IB Diploma Program has a weakness, it is in the Fine Arts (Music, Drama, and Visual Art), where students tend to substitute out to take more science or mathematics these days with all the emphasis on STEM, preparation for Science, Engineering, Mathematics and Technology fields. Changes in the course selection framework giving more scope for taking Creative Arts would significantly strengthen the IB Diploma Program and make it much more attractive to students seeking to find what Sir Ken Robinson aptly describes as “the  element” that opens lifelong doors to leading “a happy, meaningful, and productive life.”

Creating Challenge programs for “gifted students” and diverting increasingly rationed resources might well be questioned when one of the two best known academic enrichment programs offers such scope for pursuing academic excellence and exploring passionate interests outside the classroom.

Which of the two academic enrichment programs is best – AP or the IB?  Do either of them provide enough scope for “personalized learning,” or for fostering curiosity and promoting creativity in students?  That remains an open question.


About Paul W. Bennett

Founding Director, Schoolhouse Consulting, Halifax, NS

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for posting this here Paul. I don’t have any personal experience with the high school level programs, but I did attend four days of IB training in preparation for the possibility that our own district, which already has IB programs at the secondary school level, may be opting for a Primary level program.

    There are really two questions lurking in your post. The first has to do with a head-to-head comparison of the two programs. WIth no personal experience, I really can’t comment. But I have two questions. First, are the programs designed primarily for “gifted” or academically advanced students? Do they carry limiting entrance qualifications.

    The second has to do with the costs. In sitting through the IB training, I came to understand that becoming a franchisee carried with it some up front, as well as some significant ongoing costs. Are these costs passed on to students. If so, are schools offering AP and IB programs positioning themselves as “elite” options within a publicly-funded system?

    But the other question that you pose, the one about fostering personalization (and passion) is more interesting. It was my sense that the IB programs are pretty locked down in terms of planning and implementation. Again, the idea that these are types of educational franchises with a brand that needs to be protected leads me to believe that they don’t allow the freedom of exploration and discovery that have, in the past, been the hallmarks of Challenge programs.

    Finally, I was taken by your phrase “university bound”. I know that we usually use this term in reference to where a student is headed, but I would like to suggest that true personalization and attention to personal passion might be “limited” by the idea that much of our primary and secondary educational systems are “bound” by the idea that university is the mecca…the holy grail.

    My opening thoughts!


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