Columnist

America’s 22,000 high schools rarely require or even encourage students to write long research papers. That’s why nonfiction writing is one of the weakest parts of our education system.

But change is coming. The vanguard to immerse teenagers in research has been the International Baccalaureate program. High school seniors have been writing 4,000-word IB papers for more than 40 years. Other than IB, only private schools usually require lengthy research projects.

Now, the much larger Advanced Placement program, run by the College Board, has joined in. Its Capstone AP Seminar and AP Research courses began in 2014 and 2015. The seminar course on analyzing complex issues is for 10th- or 11th-graders. The research course for 11th- or 12th-graders ends with a 5,000-word paper, plus a 15- to 20-minute presentation and oral defense.

This year, 29,793 U.S. students, 90 percent of them in public schools, completed IB papers, called extended essays. That is six times the number of IB papers submitted 20 years ago, and nearly double the number of AP papers done this year.

Rushi Sheth, executive director of the AP Capstone diploma program, estimated that the number of AP Research papers will grow from 16,000 this year to 30,000 in 2022. Sheth is a former investment banking analyst who switched to teaching algebra to eighth-graders from low-income families in Denver and then joined AP to expand access to college-level coursework.

Many IB students have told me the extended essay was their most satisfying experience in high school. That success has inspired AP to upgrade its approach to nonfiction writing.

“English teachers want to teach writing well,” said Allison Malloy, an AP Capstone teacher at Carmel High School, near Indianapolis, “but they unfortunately do not always have the time to do so, while also trying to teach the entirety of curriculum.”

IB requires all students to take a theory of knowledge course that, among other things, teaches the analytical skills covered in AP Seminar. Gerardo Gonzalez, a teacher at Lane Tech College Prep High School in Chicago, explained how the AP program works at his public magnet school, where half the students are from low-income families. “The process of writing is often far more difficult for our students than we recognize,” he said. “There are skills that need to be taught, retaught and then ­re-retaught.”

Other than those working on school newspapers, American teenagers rarely interview anyone about anything. Checking the legitimacy of sources is also a big leap from surfing the Web.

Gonzalez said students new to research are able “to develop a sense of confidence that allows them to believe that they belong in the college environment.” He said one Lane Tech student interviewed 25 principals, superintendents and school council representatives about art funding reductions in Illinois for a 5,000-word AP paper.

The IB and AP research programs are designed to involve teachers outside those classes who have special expertise. IB students have two years to complete their extended essay on their own time, with guidance from a school adviser. AP students complete their paper in a year with help from their research course teacher and other experts.

Topics vary. IB extended essays have been written on language and reality in the Mimamsa school of Indian philosophy and the effects of sugar-free chewing gum on the pH of saliva in the mouth after a meal. AP Research topics have included 3-D printing applications for amputees and alternative therapies for opioid addiction.

Many IB papers have been published in the Concord Review, a quarterly collection of research by high school students. AP papers have appeared in the Young Researcher and the Whitman Journal of Psychology.  

Knowledgeable teachers say they like both programs. Daniel Coast at George Mason High School in Falls Church, Va., is one of the most experienced IB coordinators in the country. He also has twins, a daughter and a son, who will be taking the AP Capstone courses at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., over the next two years.

“The skills needed to successfully meet the requirements of the research papers at Capstone and the IB extended essay seem to be identical,” he said.

I have a perhaps unrealistic hope that research papers will someday be required of everyone going to college. But in the next few years, there will be more U.S. high school students stretching their nonfiction abilities than before. That’s a good start.