IB vs. AP: Going All In With IB

IB or AP? Is one better than the other? The debate between the two programs has intensified as the paradigm in American education continues to shift due to the CCSS and the push for both international mindedness and the development of “real world” 21st-century skills. As an IB World School, it seems that we are getting more and more requests for visits as schools continue to investigate the possibility of making the switch to IB. At last year’s NYC GIBS conference, Drew Deutsch (@DrewDeutsch) noted that the IBO now has over 4000 authorized IB World Schools with an additional 1,000 in either the candidacy or authorization phase. The “Americas” is leading the way with schools in countries such as the United States, Canada, Ecuador, Argentina, and Peru.

Over the past few years I’ve spoken to leaders from many schools who are caught between IB and AP and, as a result, offer both options to students. While this certainly makes some sense for schools that are transitioning, a long-term plan that includes both options for students is ultimately a bad one and only serves to muddy the vision and direction of a school. While the thinking might be that offering both provides more options for students, the likely result is that one of the programs will become “cheapened” since students will typically gravitate to one over another while never fully getting the most out of either. The result is an academic program that is more piecemeal than anything else with no true cohesion occurring due to the differing philosophies that guide each program.

Having worked closely with both programs as a teacher, an assistant principal, and now as a principal, I’ve been able to see and experience some of the differences between IB and AP first hand. A few months back I identified several of those differences. In this post, I have included and expanded upon those points while adding a few others. They are as follows…

IB Philosophy: Regardless of the grade level or course, the IB philosophy and approach should be evident in any class in an IB World School. For example, the English 9 class that is taught in an IB School should look very different from the same course that is being taught up the road at a non-IB school. The thinking here is that all students are IB students who will ultimately choose to access the Diploma Programme at various degrees. This will range from students who enroll in one or two IB courses to those who choose to pursue the full diploma. With AP, there is no “AP philosophy” per se and the thinking is that a specific pre-determined population of students will ultimately enroll in AP courses. That population is typically identified early on and tracked in honors and/or “pre-AP” courses.

Access: To expand on the point above, the IB makes it much easier for all students to access DP courses in grades 11-12. They do this by offering both Standard Level (SL) and Higher Level (HL) course options that are, in most cases, spread out over two years to allow for greater inquiry and exploration. In addition, the IB requires that all schools have a clear special needs policy to ensure greater access for all students. While the AP program certainly accommodates the needs of all students, the greatest difference is with the difficult entry point and seemingly high level of exclusivity that exists for students who choose to enroll in AP courses. Simply stated, far more students will access IB courses in a full IB World School as opposed to the number that will access AP courses in a more traditional situation.

“The Test”: When I attended AP training years ago, I was told flat out by the instructor that “the test” drives every aspect of the course and that students who enroll should do so with the expectation that they will score at least a 3 if not a 4 or 5. Assessments, assignments, and other tasks must be “AP-based” and inquiry, analysis, and creativity should be limited to what is necessary for success on the AP exam. Conversely, IB courses are driven less by the pressure of one test and instead contain a blend of internal and external assessments over the course of two years. This not only provides a more well-rounded picture of what students know and are able to do, but also allows for a deep understanding of the subject since more time is provided for inquiry-based authentic tasks.

Community and Support: While there is certainly plenty of opportunity for AP training by the College Board, the level of community and support that teachers and students receive with IB reaches far beyond. In addition to receiving formal IB training before teaching an IB course, all teachers meet with colleagues from their respective regions via “roundtables” and can share resources via the Online Curriculum Centre (OCC). Furthermore, teachers receive ongoing formal training (online or in-person) when changes are made to the IB subject guides every seven years and also have an opportunity to attend local, regional, national, and international conferences. All of this helps to ensure that IB teachers remain current, connected, and on the cutting edge. Similar opportunities exist for students, including IB World Student Conferences in locations around the world.

College Recognition: At last year’s GIBS Conference, @DrewDeutsch reiterated that the mission of the IB is to promote the development of an international education while providing an opportunity for students to earn a diploma that is recognized around the world. Though the IB recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, it is not until more recently that the IB has become commonly recognized by United States universities as a benchmark for academic excellence. In fact, more and more colleges are coming right out and saying that they prefer IB over AP and the college “Common App” now has a separate check-box for students who are pursuing an IB Diploma. More universities are also awarding credit for IB courses and colleges such as Sarah Lawrence are now indicating that they will award a full year of credit to full IB Diploma students. From an IB perspective, the focus has never been on helping students to earn college credits in high school and is instead on preparing all students for success in college and beyond. Fiscally minded parents and students, however, are more than happy about this shift.


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