AP vs. IB vs. Neither: A Plea for Peace and Love

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 13, 2007; 10:23 AM

Watch out. Tumultuous days are ahead in the war of advocates for college-level high school courses such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate, particularly with the rise of some schools that say their teachers can do a better job without AP or IB.

Insults are flying. Good people could get hurt. I have a peace plan, but first let's inspect the battlefield.

The AP vs. IB topic on my Admissions 101 discussion group at the Web site has 1,233 posts and more are pouring in. At the same time, educators who want to banish AP from their schools just launched a new Web site, ExcellenceWithoutAP. On Wednesday, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute at edexcellence will release one of the most detailed AP vs. IB comparisons ever: "Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate: Do They Deserve Gold Star Status?"

The Fordham report looks like a peace-making gesture, since it concludes that both programs "set high academic standards and goals for learning" and provide exams that allow students to "apply their knowledge in creative and productive ways." But the AP vs. IB combatants will likely squabble over slight differences in the grades Fordham gave AP and IB courses in biology and math. And the ExcellenceWithoutAP people are going to hate the parts of the Fordham report that warn against attempts, like theirs, to make college-level courses in high school more thematic and deny students -- at least in Fordham's view -- the solid facts, such as "the names, dates, events, documents and movements important to our history."

The College Board still dominates the battlefield, with more than 14,000 high schools using its AP program. IB has only about 500. ExcellenceWithoutAP lists about 50 schools that have dropped or never had AP. This is a big jump from the 12 schools identified in this column two years ago. But even this group is made up of schools so small that they produce less that one-fifth of 1 percent of U.S. high school seniors graduating each year.

Since the College Board is the biggest target, it gets most of the criticism, and from different directions. ExcellenceWithoutAP complains of AP being "organized around a body of knowledge in traditional disciplines" when "some schools would rather teach courses organized around analytical themes that cross disciplinary lines." The Fordham report flips that upside down, alleging that the College Board is on the brink of allying with progressive educators such as the ExcellenceWithoutAP bunch by pursuing changes in its courses that would encourage "more time talking about such themes as 'politics and citizenship' or 'continuity and change.'"

Nonetheless, traditionalist Fordham gave slightly higher grades in biology and math to IB, whose emphasis on depth in a few topics and dislike of multiple-choice questions is in the progressive tradition. It wasn't a big difference. IB got a B-minus compared to AP's C-plus in math. (Both programs lost points for allowing what the Fordham reviewers considered overuse of calculators.)

In biology, IB got an A compared to AP's A-minus. The other grades were identical, B-pluses in English and B-minuses in history. The Fordham people hate grade inflation, so in their view, those marks are very good. They conclude that both AP and IB "demonstrate that independent entities can and do make programs and assessments that are rigorous, fair, and intellectually richer than almost any state standard and exam for high school that we've seen."

The differences of opinion can be confusing, but there are grounds for future agreement and cooperation. All of the combatants in the college-level course debate share a desire to raise the level of learning in U.S. high schools, considered a weak spot in the U.S. education system. The reading and math scores of 17-year-old Americans have not improved significantly in 30 years. Encouraging well-taught, college-level courses appears to be a promising way to break out of that slump.

The ExcellenceWithoutAP group wants to show that great teachers can create courses even better than AP or IB. Bruce G. Hammond, director of college counseling at Sandia Preparatory School in New Mexico, is a former AP teacher who has led this effort. He created the Web site and is sorting through the difficulties of defining what "without AP" means, while dealing with internal school disputes. "In one case, I had a school official query me as to why they weren't on the list, and after I added them, another queried me as to why they [were] on the list," he said.

Some critics fear that Hammond's group might be exploited by educators in big public schools who don't want work as hard for their students as AP and IB require. They could point to the ExcellenceWithoutAP list and say, "Well, if private schools as prestigious as Lawrenceville and Exeter and Dalton don't need AP, why do we?" Private schools of that caliber can experiment with new courses without much fear of lowering their standards because of their parents. They don't need a battery of AP or IB tests, written and graded by outsiders, to make sure their students are learning at a college level if most of their parents are paying $25,000 to $30,000 a year -- not counting room and board -- for the best high school education money can buy. If a teacher's substitute for AP U.S. history turns into a pleasant but undemanding discussion group on pop music in the 1980s, the parents will have that course junked before long, or at least will make sure their children don't take it. Headmasters know this, and are unlikely to approve such offerings in the first place.

Public schools don't have well-educated, affluent, tuition-paying parents watching their every move. In public schools without the independent standards of AP or IB, and with most parents satisfied as long as their children pass their courses and graduate, it is more difficult to keep standards high. Successful AP and IB teachers know that, and they have convinced a growing number of school boards and superintendents to open more AP and IB courses to more students.

The anti-AP forces are marketing their product, too. That leads them to ignore or deemphasize two important facts. First, many AP and IB courses are taught just as creatively and imaginatively as the courses in ExcellenceWithoutAP schools. Both IB and AP tests give top scores to students who learn to analyze unfamiliar material and think independently about what they have learned, just what the anti-AP group is trying to encourage. Second, schools that remove the AP label don't move that far away from what AP teaches. That is proven every year by the large number of students at those schools who still take AP tests and do well on them.

Hammond argues that if a school does not follow the AP curriculum or participate in the AP's new annual audit -- for the first time AP teachers must submit their course plans for approval -- then it is not an AP school. But the core of the AP program (and the IB program) is not the curriculum, but the exams. The best known of the ExcellenceWithoutAP schools, including Scarsdale High, one of six public schools on the list, not only have many students taking AP exams, but advertise their courses as "AP equivalent," or words to that effect, and promise that their students will be ready for the AP exams.

From that point of view, the College Board may have played into the hands of its critics by insisting that all AP teachers submit their course plans for approval. That put more emphasis on the AP curriculum and undercut the strong argument that the AP exam results were enough to show which teachers were preparing their students well and which were not.

Many good teachers saw the audit as unnecessary red tape. Some of the leaders of schools joining ExcellenceWithoutAP say the new requirement helped convince them to shed the AP label. In the Fordham report, both the AP and IB exams in history and English are praised as being the best parts of those programs. The Fordham authors recommend that in some subjects teachers be guided by what they have seen in previous years' tests and not in the curriculum guides sent out by AP and IB.

Here is my peace plan: AP and IB should be recognized as the best standardized high school tests in the country, good for any school that wants to raise its level of teaching and learning. Schools that have already reached a high plateau and want to go their own wayshould be encouraged to do so. Neither side should dump on the other side's choices. What is important is what works best for the students, not who scores the most debating points on Admissions 101, or at the next school board or PTA meeting.

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