AP Vs. IB -- Where's the Research?


Question: I have taught at two international schools for the past nine years: Eight at an AP school, and for the first time this year, at an international baccalaureate (IB) school. I am extremely concerned with the philosophy that IB uses. It appears that there is far less content taught in all subjects, and I worry that this IB program is not going to provide the foundational skills to be successful in the sciences.

What IB prides itself on are interdisciplinary projects and development of higher-level critical thinking skills. I have found that interdisciplinary projects, while great in theory, are rarely implemented. I also see that what is considered critical thinking is still a limited and superficial exercise that has all students reaching the same accepted conclusions, which usually involve government intervention as the answer to societal ills. Since we skim over subject material, the theory of knowledge (TOK) exercises are not truly using thinking skills, as students to do not have the information required to do so.

My daughter graduated from an AP school. She has done well in her first year in the ECE program at Cornell. I want my son to have the same opportunities. I am afraid that IB will not be as effective in preparation. I am wondering if you know of any studies that have shown differences in success rates or test scores of AP versus IB students at the college level.

"The Dean" does not have access to the research you're requesting -- but, having navigated the college admissions maze for more than three decades, I've encountered the “AP vs. IB" debate many times, and I've watched countless students take each of these routes toward success in the admissions process and beyond. So, if you weren't obviously such an insider in both worlds, I'd probably reply to your question by simply saying, “Don't worry about your ninth-grade son's 'foundational skills.' Just advise him that, if he plans to follow his sister into a tech field, he should include IB Physics and Math among his higher-level choices."

Yet I realize that that's not all you're asking. So yesterday I forwarded your query to an expert ... Jay Mathews, the renowned Washington Post education columnist and author of nine books. He has written extensively about AP and IB programs. Jay replied right away, and here's exactly what he said to tell you:

"Rarely have I seen an analysis of IB from a person so experienced in this level of high school learning. I strongly endorse everything you have said about AP. I have written three books on that subject and agree that it is a wonderful course for high schoolers.

But I think you do need to do more research on IB, which of course is exactly what you are doing with this letter. I don't usually recommend anyone read any of my books. It seems self-serving and most people don't have the time. But you are not most people, and I think you would learn much from my book "Supertest: How the International Baccalaureate Can Strengthen Our Schools." I am sure you can get it cheap on Amazon. It lists IB staffer Ian Hill as a co-author, but he just provided some historical information. I wrote every word of the book myself and as you will see, I look at both the positives and negatives and come out strongly on the positive side.

I am known as the greatest cheerleader for AP in American journalism, but I think IB is even better because of its emphasis on writing and its extended essay requirement for those going for the full diploma. The only American high schools these days that require a research paper of every student are private schools and IB schools. It is a great flaw in our system and IB does more than AP to correct it.

In chapter 46 of my IB book, you will find what research I uncovered when I wrote it in 2005. If you Google research on IB, I think you will find more now. The work done in Chicago is particularly interesting. I have been asking selective college admissions officers for 20 years what they think of AP and IB, and every one has been extremely enthusiastic about both. The IB exams ask more of students than the AP ones do, and I don't think anyone who works regularly with IB students thinks there is any lack of rigor and content in the IB teaching.

I hope you will get back to me when you have gone deeper and tell me what you think. I would love to have an email conversation on these issues."

Feel free to continue this conversation with Jay directly. You can remind him that you were referred by “The Dean."


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