As students move through primary school up to middle school and high school, they are working toward one goal: preparing themselves for the future. For some students that means preparing for a college or university.
One way that North Carolina high schools help students achieve this goal is by offering alternative programs designed to better prepare students for college.The two main programs, the Advanced Placement (AP) program and the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, offer students a chance to challenge themselves, and just as importantly, it makes them more attractive to college admissions offices.
Though the programs have similar goals, they use different pathways to reach them.
The AP program is the more widely available of the two. It offers college-level classes to high school students to improve their critical thinking and writing skills. It also helps students apply their knowledge to real life situations.
Students can take any number of AP classes depending on their schedule and interests.
This is where the AP and IB programs begin to differ.
“AP is more of the a-la-carte version of IB,” said April Hoffman, IB coordinator at Enloe High School in Raleigh.
The IB Diploma Programme for 11th and 12th graders is a full-time two-year program in which students must complete IB courses in a variety of subjects. It also requires students to complete an extended essay, a research project and presentation as well as 150 community service hours in two years.
Enloe High School offers both programs, and students are able to enroll in both types of classes at the same time.
Enloe High School in Raleigh has had an IB Diploma since 1997. The school application process to become IB certified takes about a year and a half, during which teachers and administrators are trained in the IB curriculum. At the end of the program, an IB team evaluates the school according to the official IB standards.
“Everything that students learn informs the rest of their IB work,” said April Hoffman, IB Diploma coordinator at Enloe.
“The curriculum helps students understand more what questions to ask than just what the right answer is.”
The first district to offer the IB program was the centrally located Charlotte-Mecklenburg district in 1992.
The program has grown since it started to include five IB elementary schools, five IB middle schools and five IB high schools. They offer all three levels of IB: the Primary Years program, Middle Years program and Diploma program.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg district, unlike most districts, was able to pay for its IB students to take their end of year exams. But after statewide education budget cuts in 2010, the school district had to ask IB students to pay for their own exams.
The fees to take the end of the year IB exams for which students might receive college credit are about $700-750 dollars per student.
The fact that students are now expected to pay for their own exams has not decreased enrollment in IB classes. Some students have simply chosen not to take the exams, Koch explained.
This cost is a large difference from the AP test, which costs $87 per exam. The fees that students pay for the end of year exams fund the respective programs. The state offers grants to the schools to pay for exams of students who qualify for free or reduced lunches.This difference in cost may be one reason why more schools in North Carolina offer AP classes instead of the more expensive and intensive IB program.
Hunter Huss High School is one of the smaller schools in the state to offer the IB program. It offers the only IB program in Gaston County. There are no IB programs west of Hickory, N.C., leaving almost 200 miles of North Carolina with only AP programs.
“It could be the added expense or that fact that most of the western counties have a lower socio-economic class,” said Sally Drennan, IB coordinator at Hunter Huss High School.
Most IB programs are located at high schools in the more highly populated center of the state.
“I really hadn’t thought about most IB schools in NC being centrally located,” said Hoffman. “But it makes sense if you think about the funding requirement and the districts most likely to have a tax base to support that.”
Besides the less expensive cost, AP course credit is also more widely accepted for course credit at universities around the United States.
This is because the AP exam questions and curriculum are written by college professors making them truly college level classes, explained Trevor Packer, senior vice president of Advanced Placement and College Readiness for the College Board.
College Board is a nonprofit organization which administers the AP exams as well as the SAT.
So since both programs have their benefits, which program are admissions offices looking for when they review applications?
“The National Association of College Admissions Counselors has identified that the most important criteria that they look at are grades in college prep courses,” Packer said. He added that this has been a real shift in the past 10 years because of grade inflation.
“The GPA is not as trustworthy and meaningful as AP and IB exams because of the external assessment,” Packer said.
This rise in the importance of college prep courses suggests that these types of programs become a common expectation for students who wish to get into a four-year college, explained Hoffman.”We need to recognize that it is not a luxury to ask that students do these programs in order to be more competitive globally,” Hoffman said.
But what about students whose schools offer neither program? Are they simply out of luck?
Packer explained this is not the case. Students need to simply show that they will be able to work at a college level.
“Colleges really just want students to take the most rigorous courses that are available to them,” Packer said. “For some that might just be an honors class.”
The answer to which program is better seems to be that it depends on each student’s specific goals.
“I don’t think that IB is more helpful,” Drennan said. “It is just a different way to prepare students.”
Parker agrees. “There is no one route to rigor and excellence.”