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AP or IB? Making Sense of International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement

AP or IB? Making Sense of International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement

Published: 07/01/2013 by Cynthia Dusseault B.Ed.

» Parents and Education

If you have a child in junior high you’ll soon be helping him or her choose a high school. That involves exploring the specialty programs offered. If your child is strong academically there are two high-profile programs that you’re going to hear a lot about: International Baccalaureate (IB) and Advanced Placement (AP).


Let’s talk “IB”
The International Baccalaureate (IB) program originated in Geneva, Switzerland in 1968. Designed for the children of expatriates working abroad in diplomatic positions or for multi-national organizations, the IB program was initially offered in private international schools and provided standardized programming and testing for children whose families were constantly on the move.

Today the IB program is offered in schools around the world and is recognized as providing students with a balanced, comprehensive, rigorous international education that prepares students for university, cultural mobility and becoming valuable members of the global community.

The IB program is actually comprised of two separate programs: the IB Diploma program and the IB Diploma Course program. These programs are offered only at the high school level and are currently offered in five Calgary Board of Education (CBE) high schools, and four Calgary
Catholic School Division (CCSD) high schools. No private or charter schools in Calgary offer IB.

The defining feature of the IB Diploma Program is its three component core, which consists of the following: a 4000- word extended essay on a topic of global significance; the Theory of Knowledge course, which fosters critical thinking; and Creativity, Action, Service (CAS), which
requires completion of 150 activity hours related to the arts, physical activity, and community service.

Curriculumwise, students are required to take one subject from each of the following subject categories: Studies in Language and Literature, Individuals and Societies, Mathematics, Sciences, and Language Acquisition. A sixth subject must be taken, either in the area of Arts, or from any of these five groups. After receiving a minimum number of hours of instruction in a subject, a student may write the final exam.

Final marks in each subject are based on the IB exam mark plus assessment tasks completed during the year. For each subject a mark from 1 to 7 (with 7 being the highest) is awarded. The marks for all the subjects are added up, including marks for the extended essay and
the Theory of Knowledge courses. If a student earns a minimum of 24 marks out of a possible 45, the IB Diploma is awarded.

The IB Diploma Course Program, the offshoot of the main program, allows students to take individual IB courses without working towards the IB Diploma. For each individual IB course completed with a mark of 4 or higher the student earns a Certificate of Completion. IB exams do not replace the provincially administered diploma exams that Alberta students write to obtain their high school diplomas. IB exam marks do not factor into the awarding of high school diplomas.

Let’s talk “AP”
The Advanced Placement (AP) program was implemented in the U.S. in 1955 by the College Board, a not-for-profit U.S.-based organization that works to streamline the college application and admission processes. The Board is best known as the administrator of the SAT , a college
admission test used widely in the U.S. The AP Program was introduced into Canada in 1970 and is administered by a College Board office in Victoria, B.C.

AP or IB?
According to the AP Canada website, 29 Calgary high schools currently offer AP programing. This includes public, separate, private and charter schools. AP courses are equivalent to first-year university courses. High school students can take one AP course or take as many as the high school allows in any one semester or school year. The grade for an AP course is based completely on the AP exam for that course so coursework does not factor into the grading process.

AP exams are given a grade of 1 to 5 (with 5 being the highest). There are no core components as there are with IB Diploma. The AP program operates purely on a course-by-course basis. As with IB exams, AP exams do not replace the provincially administered diploma exams. Also, AP exam marks do not factor into the awarding of high school diplomas.

How IB & AP stack up
Having an IB Diploma, IB Certificates or AP gradescan give students advantages over non-IB/AP students at many post-secondary institutions in Canada and around the world. Advantages of taking IB/AP courses include advanced credit. Intangible benefits all relate to preparedness for university. Students learn study skills, time management, critical thinking, and problem solving. This translates into improved chances for success in their post-secondary studies.

The IB website provides charts that summarize IB recognition at universities. IB diploma holders may be granted early admission, early course registration, or be provided with a dedicated advisor. Holding the IB Diploma may qualify a student for a full year of credit, meaning he or she will be granted second-year status upon admission. Other universities may not grant a full-year of credit but will grant advanced credit on a course-by-course basis.

It’s important to note that these benefits and advantages for IB Diploma holders are far more common in Canadian universities than in the U.S. That’s because the AP program is the program of choice in the U.S., due to its affiliation to the SAT and because the College Board continues to be the defining body for U.S. college admission. In the U.S., most universities treat the IB Diploma on a course-by-course basis.

At almost all North American universities a student who achieves a minimum AP exam grade will be granted credit for an introductory-level university course in that subject area.

In terms of “stacking up,” AP remains the gold standard at all U.S. universities while IB seems to hold more clout at international universities. There is no uniform policy on university admission in Canada. Generally AP is more widely offered than IB in Canadian high schools and Canadian universities tend to be more familiar with the AP program.

Making the right choice
So, how do you decide if your child is a good candidate for IB or AP programming? Although it may not be specified in a high school’s policy regarding admission to IB or AP, students generally need to come out of junior high with a minimum average of 75 per cent in order to get into either program.

But, Tom Sullivan, the principal of Bishop Grandin High School, which offers the AP program, says that although that’s the general baseline for admission, it’s based on much more than that.

The recommendation of junior high teachers is probably the most significant factor. Pull up one of the IB applications on a school website and you’ll see that a good portion of each application must be completed by teachers. They must answer questions about work ethic,
quality of work, class participation, and a wide range of academic, social, and emotional characteristics.

In addition, every IB and AP application form requires the applicant to provide paragraph-style answers to questions about extracurricular activities, hobbies and goals, providing insight into why he or she would make a good candidate for the IB or AP program. IB and AP are not requirements for university admission.

The “-1” courses such as English 30-1, Math 30-1, aredesigned for students who plan on attending university, and they more than adequately prepare students to write
and excel in the diploma exams.

At Mount Royal University in Calgary, for example, the university will use the higher of the two marks (Math 30-IB, Math 30-1) to calculate the student’s average for admission purposes. The goal is to maximize the student’s average, increasing chances of admission.

The website of McGill University in Montreal doesn’t even consider IB and AP marks when making initial admission decisions. It grants admission based on the regular high school marks and only looks at IB and AP marks to award advanced credit after a student has been admitted.

Advanced credit at the university level is advantageous. Students who are granted credits for one or more firstyear university courses have the option of taking lighter course loads, thus improving their chances of excelling in those courses.

Alternatively, students can incorporate second-year courses into their first year and move onto graduate studies faster. Furthermore, students who are unsure of their career paths can incorporate a wider variety of nonrequired courses into their first year, and thereby explore different subject areas. The bottom line is that students have more options to direct their post-secondary studies.

So if your child is motivated, and eager to accept the challenges of an academic enrichment program, should it be IB or AP?

There’s no easy answer, because there are so many considerations. If your child is strong in certain subjects like math or the sciences and not so strong in others, going the AP route in those strong subjects is likely the best option. AP courses are generally more difficult than IB courses, and with AP assessment hinges completely on exams.

If your child is strong academically but is also wellrounded— enjoys sports, plays a musical instrument or is artistic—the IB Diploma route may be the perfect fit. The Creativity, Action, Service (CAS) component allows and encourages well-rounded students to continue pursuing the activities they enjoy. And, since IB course marks don’t hinge completely on exams, the IB Diploma program is also a good choice for students who excel in assignments and projects, but perhaps struggle a little with exams.

A student with specific interests might also be more suited to the IB Diploma Course program, which allows him her to choose individual courses.

Of course, there’s also the issue of availability. No Calgary high school offers the full range of IB or AP subjects. Many schools that offer IB or AP programming offer specific courses every year, and may offer additional ones on demand. So, you’ll need to explore which subjects are
offered at which schools.

If your child is a student in the public or Catholic district, and your designated high school doesn’t offer IB or AP, your child will have to apply to attend a school in your district that does.

As soon as high schools start holding their IB and AP information evenings, go with your child so both of you can learn as much as possible about what each school has to offer. Self-motivated, academic students know their own strengths and abilities. The best IB or AP candidate may well be the child who does the research, carefully contemplates both programs, makes the choice, and starts filling out the application form with little or no encouragement from you. This demonstrates motivation and a commitment to academic excellence— key characteristics of students who thrive in IB and AP programs.