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.
But Alexander Carter, the Brentsville principal, has his mind made up. "I believe Cambridge is the most rigorous academic program that exists," Carter said. "The AP program is, 'Show what you know.' The Cambridge program is, 'Show us what you can do with what you know.' "
Experts say the debate says more about students than the programs.
"It's splitting hairs. It's like, can you honestly say that Georgetown Day is better or worse than Sidwell Friends?" said Denise Pope, a lecturer at Stanford University's School of Education and author of a book about stressed-out teenagers. "A lot of this is a competition over who can suffer the most. The person who can withstand the most stress and lives to tell about it is the winner."
But people still try to find ways to measure which is best. In presentations to parents considering the Cambridge program at his school, Carter hands out the findings of a recent survey showing that at a large state university in Florida, the average first-year GPA of Cambridge students was 3.46, compared with 3.12 and 3.10 for students who took AP and IB courses in high school, respectively.
No exhaustive study has been conducted to determine which program is best -- and especially what "best" would mean, according to officials in the programs. Some high schools offer one program, and others offer a choice.
AP advocates contend that their program has the upper hand because its tests are widely recognized among U.S. universities.
At Georgetown University, freshmen can get credit if they score a 4 or 5 on an AP exam after a one-year course. But IB students can get credit there for doing well on their IB exams only after taking two-year IB courses.
"Most people in my chair will say that IB is wonderful. I am not one of those," said Charles Deacon, Georgetown's dean of undergraduate admissions. "The AP program has been in effect for a very long time. It's got a very rigorous curriculum design, and it covers the subject matter we want to see, and it's scored on a rigorous basis, whereas in IB, it's not quite as rigorous."
What about Cambridge? Deacon wants to see more Georgetown applicants who have participated in the program before he puts it on par with AP or IB. "A lot of the schools that are doing it, we never get applications from. When it gets to the Winston Churchills or Thomas Jeffersons, then you know you've got something for you," Deacon said, referring to two of the region's most prestigious public high schools.
Lauren Sclater, 17, of Prince William has experience with two programs. After spending her first two years at a high school with an IB program -- Gar-Field Senior High in Woodbridge -- she transferred to an AP school this year as a junior: Osbourn Park High, near Manassas. She switched after learning that one of her top college choices might not offer as much credit for IB as it does for AP.
To friends who ask her to compare the two, Sclater replies that IB is harder because "the exam questions are wordier" and "they play tricks on you."
"I took pride that I was good enough to be in the IB program. Anybody can be in AP," she said, adding that her clique of friends would often feign despair over how much work they were saddled with.
"I would be like, 'So I have this, this and this to do tonight,' and their jaws would drop. And I would just say back, 'Eh, I'll get through it,' sort of playing it off and pretending like it was nothing," Sclater said of her IB days. "But I kind of knew in the back of my mind, 'Oh, my goodness, I have a lot of stuff to do.' "
For MacGregor, the world's No. 2 on the Cambridge English language test, her program has paid off. She has been accepted to the University of Virginia, and she won a prize for her performance on the test: a gift certificate worth more than $100 for Amazon.com.
Does IB or AP offer the same for its top students? That would be a big no.