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New Teen Taunt: You Call Those Advanced Classes?

Danielle MacGregor of Prince William County placed second among 11,000 students who took an advanced University of Cambridge International exam.
Danielle MacGregor of Prince William County placed second among 11,000 students who took an advanced University of Cambridge International exam. (By Dayna Smith For The Washington Post)

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By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 25, 2007

Alyssa Smith, 17, was taking Advanced Placement classes at Woodbridge Senior High School in Prince William County. Her boyfriend was in the International Baccalaureate program at Stonewall Jackson High School near Manassas.

"I got an opportunity to look at his homework . . . and his work sheets were pretty simple," said Smith, now a senior. "We'd always have arguments over who was more exhausted, and I would always win. My parents made fun of IB. They didn't think it was a quality program, either."

Smith and her boyfriend have broken up now.

Fierce but subtle rivalries are playing out among the teenage academic elite in the Washington area as high schools expand college-level courses. Like Ivy Leaguers who debate ad nauseam whether Harvard, Yale or Princeton reigns supreme, many high schoolers enjoy engaging in a game of one-upmanship over their brand-name curricula.

Their tit for tats might appear trifling, but students say the debates help them answer fundamental questions about their high-achieving existence: Whose life is most out of control? Which program is more impressive to colleges? Which provides the best education? Who suffers the heaviest workload?

There might be no objective way to settle such questions. Often, students base their opinions about rival programs on little more than perceptions or generalizations that may or may not be true.

AP students believe that their program has the most credibility because it is administered by the New York-based College Board, which oversees the SAT. AP is used in 16,000 schools nationwide. AP students say that the IB program allows for too many open-ended questions on exams and that many IB assignments amount to busywork.

IB partisans have plenty to say in defense of the Geneva-based program. They contend that their classes are more integrated and worldly and involve much more homework than AP's. They cite the fact that they have to take at least six IB courses -- three of them are two years long -- and that one of them must be a foreign language class. (There is no minimum requirement for the number of courses and tests for AP students.) What's more, IB diploma students have to write a 4,000-word mini-thesis. And they have to perform multiple hours of community service.

In addition, a fast-growing, elite program is making its way to Washington area schools. The British-based University of Cambridge international program, which started to take root in the United States in the 1990s, is available in about 60 U.S. schools, including two each in the Prince William and Montgomery county systems. Cambridge fans say the program is the most challenging because it encourages students to spend more time analyzing material than memorizing facts. For instance, students know in advance what books will be asked about on the end-of-year exams, which encourages them to worry less about remembering long lists of characters and more about dissecting narratives.

Danielle MacGregor, a Prince William senior, placed second in the world on a University of Cambridge International Examination, beating out 11,000 students from more than 90 countries.

"Some people do think that Cambridge is tougher and more strenuous, and a lot of times you'll hear it from the teachers," said MacGregor, 17, a senior at Brentsville District High School. "You know, I wish Cambridge was more well-known . . . but maybe that makes us more elite."

Most school officials tiptoe around the topic, saying that each program is equally challenging and that their differences appeal to different types of learners.


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