Will AP or IB Really Get You College Credit?

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 9, 2007; 10:08 AM

When the young people who run washingtonpost.com recruited me to moderate the Web site's new "Admissions 101" discussion group, they said it would be a breeze. All I had to do was come up with a few provocative topics each week and stand back. Our readers would be the ones who would make it interesting. I wouldn't have to miss any of my afternoon naps.

As proof of both the washingtonpost.com staff's honesty, and my decrepitude, take a look at this topic on the discussion group list: "Will AP or IB REALLY get you college credit?" I put it up more than five months ago, on May 22. As of yesterday, it had more than 250 posts and was still going strong. How many of those posts were mine? About five. Some of the discussion group members are irritated by my absence from their intriguing debate, for which I offer a couple of lame excuses below.

What this topic has taught me is that the battle between pro-Advanced Placement and pro-International Baccalaureate people is a bigger deal than I thought it was. AP and IB both offer college-level exams to high school students that can earn credit at many colleges. I consider the argument trivial, like comparing a Mercedes to a BMW. They are both very fine cars; whether you choose one or the other doesn't make much difference.

But I was wrong about the importance of the AP-IB choice to other people. The Admissions 101 debate indicates it is a big deal and is likely to become even more important as IB -- at the moment tiny compared to AP -- continues its rapid growth. The number of people posting on the issue is relatively small, but they are unusually articulate and well-connected advocates for their point of view. As AP and IB continue to increase their influence over the American education system, the argument is going have an impact.

Here is my original posting:

"College admissions offices love AP and IB, so if you take the courses and tests, you improve your chances of being admitted. But once you get to college and try to get course credit for your work, it is often a different story. Different colleges have different rules. Different departments in the same college will have different rules.

"There is no research on this and VERY poor, or nonexistent, guidance in the college guides and college catalogues. So we need to help each other. You may be a professor, a college sophomore, an experienced parent or someone else with experience with this process. How did it work in your case? What was the rule that stood in your way? Did you take a placement test at the college? Did you visit the professor and talk your way in to the next level course you wanted? All stories welcome, and may inspire future Post stories or columns."

The Admissions 101 discussants exceeded even my high expectations with first-hand observations, deft analysis and original ideas for reform. I will use the participants' sign-in names except in two cases in which I am confident they won't mind having their real names given.

Jatraynor26, a senior at the University of Georgia, noted that a 3 on the 5-point AP Calculus AB exam will only place you in a calculus course, not provide you with any credit at his school. But he was able to get 19 hours of course credit from his AP exam grades and thus graduate in four years despite changing his major, adding a second major and having a lot of other activities. Anne_o_nymous said she took both IB and AP exams, which earned her 23 credits and seven courses, and allowed her to graduate a year early from Georgetown University.

Readers discussed which college courses might be worth skipping with AP or IB credit, and which should be taken even if you have already had the course and did well on the AP or IB exam in high school. JustADad told the story of a friend who was a biology major and pre-med who decided to take his college's introductory chemistry course, despite having taken AP Chemistry. "She felt it would benefit her en route to Medical School," he said. In hindsight, this was a bad idea. The college course turned out to be a CliffsNotes version of what she learned in AP. She eventually stopped going to lectures. She did the labs, took the exam and passed with flying colors.

Two frequent Admissions 101 participants who teach high school students opened a topic that I had never before seen discussed in such intriguing detail -- the difference between the grades students get on their report cards from their AP teachers and the grades they get on their AP exams from independent readers long after they have received their report cards. Cal_Lanier suggested that classroom teachers leave the class grade for AP courses blank until they see the exam results, and give an A for any 4 or 5, even if the kid never said a word in class. Patrickmattimore1 (whose name is indeed Patrick Mattimore) suggested getting the College Board to grade the AP exams earlier so colleges could have those results before they decided whom to admit.

Discussion of AP vs. IB became even more interesting, and aggravating when lisamc31, also known as Lisa McLoughlin, joined in. McLoughlin is a parent, real estate broker and journalist who is an acidic opponent of the IB program at Locust Valley High School on Long Island's North Shore, and of IB in general. She has become, in my view, the liveliest and most intelligent IB critic in the country. I devoted a chapter to her in my 2005 book, "Supertest: How the International Baccalaureate Can Strengthen Our Schools." We still communicate often by e-mail.

Any program like IB that is important for our children needs thoughtful hecklers like McLoughlin. She told the other Admissions 101 participants that schools should junk IB in favor of AP because it costs more than AP and does not deliver college credits with the certainty and consistency of AP. Other discussion group members said their experience with IB convinced them that it was more challenging and deeper than AP. One well-informed discussant, OscarWilde, who appears to be a college professor, quoted in detail favorable assessments of IB students from several well-known colleges.

Many discussants wondered why I was not participating, giving me a sense of what God must feel like during the annual flood of prayers from Cub fans. My excuse is that I was on vacation and had several big deadlines when I got back. And remember, the washingtonpost.com people said I didn't have to strain myself and risk a stroke, which McLoughlin is capable of triggering all by herself.

My biggest deadline has passed, so hopefully I will be posting more soon. For a warm-up, I will respond to one of McLoughlin's weakest arguments -- that the 4,000-word extended essay required of IB diploma candidates is not much of a challenge since she had something like that when she was in high school. She is fortunate in having that experience, but Will Fitzhugh, editor of the Concord Review, has provided strong evidence -- in line with my own experience -- that almost no high school these days requires long, college-level papers from anybody. The IB students I have interviewed say the extended essay requirement turned out to be the best thing that happened to them in high school, and very different from what their non-IB classmates and friends were getting.

My favorite piece of advice for parents worried about the AP vs. IB choice came from contrarymom, a parent who watched carefully as her children and other young relatives experienced both programs. "Each of our kids is different," she said. "We really need to look at them, and at ourselves. As parents, we have to be honest enough to recognize when we are running our own agendas and getting in the way of our kids. My daughter was born with her head screwed on straight and tight. She has an infallible nonsense meter. I bet your kid does too."

I think both AP and IB are great choices, with IB having just a small advantage because of IB's extended essay and the failure of most AP schools to make the AP exams mandatory for AP students. My fellow participants at Admissions 101 are still divided on that, as they are on other hot topics in the discussion group. But the information and insights they have added to the debate have helped all of us.

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