Colleges Continue Irrational Policies On IB Program

By Jay Mathews
Monday, October 20, 2008

American education has a tattered reputation in many respects, except for our colleges and universities. They are world leaders in quality and accessibility. The desire to provide our children the best in higher education unites Americans in a unique way.

So it dismays me to report that on one issue, the leaders of nearly every four-year college in the country have shown appalling ignorance and hypocrisy. They say they want high schools to provide challenging courses for students thinking of college, but at the same time they discriminate against the most demanding college-level program in high school: International Baccalaureate.

College officials in Maryland, Virginia and the District have proven especially dense on this subject. In February, I wrote about their refusal to give credit to students who did well on final exams in one-year IB courses while giving credit to students who did well in final exams for similar (but in many cases less-demanding) one-year Advanced Placement courses. The culprit seemed to be an old committee report that had wormed its way into university regulations without any data behind it. IB students can generally get college credit only after taking two-year IB courses.

I figured that the University of Virginia, the College of William and Mary, Howard University, George Washington University, Johns Hopkins University and others would realize how their policies have demeaned the IB programs in more than 30 Washington area high schools and might have stymied the growth of IB in other schools. Admissions directors at those fine institutions were urging high school students to take IB courses and exams to build academic muscle, but the academic departments at those same colleges and universities were refusing to give them the credit AP students received. Chad King, a 2007 graduate of the IB program at Mount Vernon High School in Fairfax County, told me, "I feel like we were cheated."

It is important to note that AP, like IB, is a terrific program, well worth college credit for students who do well on its exams. But many experts say IB is more challenging. IB puts more emphasis on analysis and writing, including requiring a 4,000-word essay for students seeking a full IB diploma. IB final exams are five hours long and rarely have multiple-choice questions, whereas AP exams are three hours and about half multiple choice.

In February, I explained the problem to officials at 16 local colleges and universities. George Mason University and Trinity Washington University checked their policies and told me that they had banned such discrimination -- the first time I had found any universities that had done so. I later learned that local two-year colleges, such as Northern Virginia Community College, Montgomery College and Prince George's Community College, also do not discriminate against IB.

I hoped the 14 other schools, given their reputations, would acknowledge that their policies were askew and take steps to correct that. I was disappointed. Three did not respond or could not find anyone to respond to my February query. Nine said they had no idea why their policies were discriminatory and had no data to justify the policies but were not in any hurry to make changes. A GWU official said that the IB organization did not consider its courses to be college level, but it turned out that she was citing an incorrect, secondhand source.

St. Mary's College of Maryland seemed at the time to be the only one interested in doing something. They said they were reviewing the data, including an analysis by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. The experts at that think tank, grading by content, rigor and clarity, concluded that one-year IB courses were equal to AP English and history courses, somewhat better in biology and somewhat worse in calculus.

This month, I checked in again with local colleges and universities on their IB credit policies. Most had promised a review of the matter. How were those reviews going? Not well, apparently. Almost all said they hadn't started a review or else did not respond. Kimberley L. Phillips, dean for educational policy at William and Mary, was one of the few who called me back, but she could provide no evidence to support her college's policy on IB credit.

The only schools that seemed to care much were Marymount University, which said it is considering changing its credit rules, and the University of Maryland, where transfer credit center official Theresa DiPaolo said she has been working on this issue for 15 years. She has made sure department heads look at the actual IB and AP exams before deciding on their policies. As a result, U-Md. does give credit for some IB courses (including chemistry, psychology and foreign languages) on the same basis as AP.

U-Md. still doesn't treat IB English, biology or history the same way as AP courses, despite evidence that they are similar. But compared with most of their peers, university officials in College Park are paragons of diligence and fairness on this issue and should get credit for that.

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