Debate Over AP vs. IB Classes Continues

By Jay Mathews
Thursday, November 23, 2006

Dear Extra Credit:

There has been one oversight in almost all the letters I've read concerning the debate over honors vs. Advanced Placement in Fairfax County. Rarely mentioned is that AP classes are neither high school level classes nor college prep classes. They are nothing less than college level classes; otherwise no college would grant credit. Although one can argue the pros and cons of offering high school honors in addition to "regular" classes, equating AP classes to high school honors classes is a totally flawed comparison.

So, when the only options are a "regular" class and an AP class, the choice really comes down to taking a high school class or taking a college class. I suspect that substituting "college" for "AP" in the discussions would trigger significant rethinking on the issue, especially with respect to 10th- or 11th-grade students.

The International Baccalaureate standard-level option mentioned in Nell Hurley's Sept. 7 letter [Extra, "In a Student's Example, a Case for Mid-Level Core Courses"] illustrates a possible middle ground. Many colleges do not accept standard-level IB exams for college credit or require an IB diploma. Thus, the standard-level IB curriculum could be classified as high school honors level.

Warren Repole


Dear Extra Credit:

As a teacher, I have followed with interest the discussion concerning honors classes. I believe that honors classes are a tracking system. Adding honors classes will pull many good students out of regular classes.

This may or may not benefit the students in these classes, but who will it leave in regular classes? Students who struggle academically, are not motivated to learn or are discipline problems will no longer have good student role models or students who are capable of helping them in the regular classes.

Additionally, you can't just add an honors class without additional resources. Where will the dollars come from? And where do you find the additional highly qualified teachers willing to take the students left in the regular classes?

It has been suggested in your column that the IB program offers an alternative that could satisfy the need for intermediate level courses. I think this is an oversimplification. The IB curriculum does provide students with tremendous opportunities. It offers courses to satisfy needs of a wide variety of students.

In mathematics, which I teach, there are three different options. IB Mathematical Studies is a standard level course for students who do not anticipate a need for a lot of mathematics in future studies. It also caters to weaker students who would still like to take a challenging math class. This course is similar to a college level math for the liberal arts class.

The next level course is IB Math SL. It caters to those who need a sound mathematical background as they prepare for future studies in subjects such as chemistry, economics, psychology and business administration. This is equivalent to the old pre-calculus/calculus track. Finally, the higher level IB Math HL is for students who display a considerable interest in mathematics and who have a high degree of competence in analytical and technical skills.

IB is an inclusive system rather than a tracking system. All students can take and can benefit from IB courses. Those who wish to be truly challenged can seek a full diploma. A student seeking an IB diploma must take six IB courses across the entire curriculum. In addition, they must research and write an extended essay, take a class in Theory of Knowledge, and do service hours.

I have heard from more than one of my former students about how well the IB diploma program prepared them for college, both in academics and in time management. Additionally, two former students entered college with sophomore standing because of credit for their IB courses. I believe that if more parents understood the value of the IB program, they would be fighting to get their children into our IB schools.

J. A. Adelman

Thomas A. Edison High School

I thought these letters made an interesting point not mentioned in my columns on AP and honors. Fairfax County has eight high schools with IB programs, more than any other school district except Chicago's. They give students here a very useful option.

But I am not sure IB, even the one-year standard level courses, can be used as a less demanding alternative to AP. The two-year, higher level IB courses can earn college credit, and one-year, standard level courses usually cannot. But in some subjects, such as economics, the standard IB course is just as complete and demanding as the AP .

The problem is that the colleges have not figured that out yet and are following their old credit policies based largely on ignorance of what IB standard level courses teach.

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