Dear Extra Credit:

Some of the high schools in Fairfax County offer Advanced Placement (AP) classes and some offer International Baccalaureate (IB) classes. Besides explaining the differences between these two types of classes, could you please also speak to the implications of choosing one over the other? Do some colleges accept one but not the other, and if so, which program is more likely to be looked upon favorably by colleges? Also, I'm curious how it is decided which schools get which program.

Jeanne Kadet


Kadet is a Poe

Middle School parent

Many parents and students are confused by the profusion of college-level courses in Fairfax, but having followed the growth of both AP and IB in high schools around the country for the last 22 years, I think the county is lucky to have both. Both programs are popular with selective college admissions officers and both provide the most challenging academic experiences available in U.S. high schools.

AP courses prepare students for what are usually three-hour exams in May written and graded by experts working for the New York-based College Board. The board also owns the SAT, but this has not given the AP an advantage. Many college officials think it is somewhat less challenging than the IB. The AP tests are similar to final exams in freshman college courses, and students who score well on them can earn college credit. IB courses prepare students for what are often five-hour exams in May written and graded by experts, including many Americans, working for the Geneva-based International Baccalaureate Organization. Good IB test scores also earn college credit.

AP is a much bigger program, with 14,000 U.S. high schools participating, compared with only about 400 IB schools. But IB is growing fast. There are 20 public schools with IB programs in the Washington area. Eight Fairfax County schools have IB programs, and one of them, Robinson Secondary School, gives a significant number of AP exams also. The other 16 schools just have AP.

AP had been in Fairfax for many years when IB was first installed in 1994 in Mount Vernon and J.E.B. Stuart high schools. Kristen J. Amundson and Ruth Turner, School Board members at the time who represented those neighborhoods, were worried that the two schools' academic reputations might decline as more low-income families moved in. The then-superintendent, Robert R. "Bud" Spillane, thought that AP teachers were too willing to exclude all but A students from the courses. He wanted it to have some competition. They agreed that IB was the solution.

The IB courses, with their required long essays and community service projects, proved successful at Mount Vernon and Stuart, pushing them into the top 2 percent of all U.S. schools as measured by college-level course participation. Other Fairfax schools adopted the program after discussions with parents and students, although one, W.T. Woodson, first adopted IB and then rejected it, on a 15 to 10 vote of a student-parent-faculty committee in late 1999, because many people at the school said they did not want to lose AP.

College department heads, less familiar with IB, were at first slow to give IB courses as much credit as similar AP courses, but that discrepancy seems to be disappearing. New Virginia state guidelines, for instance, give IB students a better chance than AP students to receive credit for college biology. Early in IB's history in Fairfax, some parents suggested it was fit only for low-income schools, but its success at affluent schools such as Robinson and George Mason in Falls Church proved them wrong.

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