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Advanced Placement (AP) vs.

International Baccalaureate (IB)

Which program is better?

In trying to answer this question, Jay Matthews, an influential education blogger at the Washington Post, tells the story of Harlan Hanson, a man who has held leadership roles in both the AP and IB programs.  When it came time for each of his four children to choose a High School, Hanson laid out the pros and cons and gave them the choice – two chose AP and two chose IB.  When asked point blank about which program is better, Matthews himself replies, ‘I try to dodge the question.  Both programs are top-notch.’

When Rosslyn explored the two options several years ago, our conclusion was that, while each program is outstanding, the AP was a superior fit for our students and our educational community.  Today, our conviction has only strengthened.  Why?

Greater Recognition in North America 

While both programs have gained respect globally, the AP program is dominant in North America (in the US for instance, over 18,000 schools offer the AP, while only 1,207 schools – 91% of which are public schools – offer the IB).  Because the vast majority of our students elect to attend universities in North America, the greater influence of the AP program there is seen by us as a significant point in its favor.

Is the IB program preferred over the AP in Europe?

Just as the AP’s North American founding has given it greater recognition in North America, the IB program’s European roots have led to a similar advantage for the IB at European universities.  That said, while the IB is widely known in Europe, the AP is still very well-regarded by the best universities in Europe.  Many of our students who have opted to study in Europe, Asia, or Australia have relied heavily (and with great success) on their AP scores.  Recently, for instance, a Rosslyn student was admitted to Cambridge University, primarily on the basis of his strong AP scores.

The AP program offers greater individualization and flexibility than the IB

The IB was created as a ‘whole’ program.  While the IB does offer two levels, a student cannot opt in for one IB class and opt out of others.  We feel that this ‘all in’ system is not ideal for many students.  The greater flexibility of the AP program, on the other hand, allows students to tailor an academic program that fits their unique areas of strength.  While Rosslyn values holistic development (as our tremendous range of course offerings, concern for student leadership development, and outstanding extra-curricular programs demonstrate) we recognize that within the parameters of holistic development, students have radically divergent needs when it comes to being challenged in any given area.  The AP allows us to provide a genuinely holistic program while still catering to each student’s unique strengths.

Getting university credit

Similarly, while both programs offer courses that universities regard as comparable to a first year university class, it is generally slightly easier to get university credit for AP courses than it is for their IB equivalents.  Why is this?  While both seem to be treated equally at top-tier universities, the threshold for acceptance of the IB exam score is functionally higher.  Yale’s policy, for instance, is as follows, ‘In subjects for which an AP score of 4 or 5 earns acceleration credit, a score of 6 or 7 on IB higher-level exams… is required… in subjects that require an AP score of 5 for acceleration credit, a score of 7 on the IB higher-level… is required.’  In practical terms, however, there is a difference because between 20-30% of AP test takers receive the maximum score of ‘5’, while only approximately 10% of IB exam takers receive the equivalent ‘7’.  The larger point is that both programs are extremely well-regarded.

The AP is less bureaucratic and ideological than the IB

The relative lack of bureaucracy and dictated ideology in the AP program allows a school to fit the AP into its educational culture.  This is in contrast to the alternative of being forced to adopt a particular system and philosophy of education as is required by the IB curriculum.  Rosslyn believes that learning, faith, and moral growth blossom when they are integrated.  The AP program, which does not include a mandated ‘philosophy of learning’, allows us to integrate the moral and spiritual component of education in ways that are consistent with our Christian worldview and values.  The IB program rests on an explicitly secular philosophy of education that makes the integration of faith and learning much more difficult.

The AP is more cost-effective

Because the IB program comes, to some extent, as a one-size fits all curriculum – one that is dictated by a central planning body and requires every teacher in the program to undergo training in the IB program – it is also significantly more expensive to run.  We believe that the AP program offers at least as good an academic program at a fraction of the cost, allowing us to pour more money directly into the classroom.

Ease of transferability

The mobile and international families that make up Rosslyn’s educational community need a curriculum that is easily transferable if/when they are relocated to another country.  We believe that the AP program is far more suited to this process than the IB.  This might seem counter-intuitive as the IB is, after all the ‘international’ baccalaureate.  So why is this?  The AP program is based on individual, self-contained, courses that students pick to suit their needs and interests.  Those individual credits are easily applied to a host of different curricula.  The IB program, however, is designed to be experienced as a ‘whole package’.  While it is not impossible, it is harder to separate the IB content courses and blend them into a different program.  In other words, the AP program offers courses that are complete puzzles in themselves.  Therefore, giving credit for them is uncomplicated.  On the other hand, the IB offers courses that are pieces within the larger IB puzzle.  If you are transferring to a school that does not offer the IB puzzle, your pieces may not fit as well.

Which is more challenging and which is more work

There is no consensus on this question.  One Canadian educational blogger comparing the two concluded that the, ‘AP is slightly more difficult, whereas the workload for IB is significantly greater.’  The answer probably varies for individuals and depending on how the programs are applied in different schools.  Regardless, most experts would say that both courses are extremely rigorous.  As one educational blogger put it, ‘AP and IB are almost universally accepted as proof of secondary academic achievement on a high level.  Apply to Harvard or Yale and they will both know exactly what the IB and AP are and what the results mean.  It’s not the same with an applicant whose only credentials are good marks in his high school’s leaving examinations and some nice recommendations.’

So, in the end, which is better

We believe that the question is much like choosing between a Mercedes sedan and a Range Rover.  Both are exceptional vehicles but with slightly different purposes and strengths.  Which program a school chooses is, therefore, primarily based on the question of which one is the best fit for that school and its students.  For the reasons listed above, we believe that the AP program is the superior choice for Rosslyn Academy’s community and are proud of our reputation as one of largest and most successful AP programs in Africa.  As mentioned above, over the last five years the global pass rate on AP exams has been steady at approximately 60%.  Rosslyn’s average pass rate over the same period has been slightly above 80%.  This 22% gap between Rosslyn’s students and the other four million high achieving students worldwide who take the AP each year is a strong testimony not only to our students – their intelligence and their work ethic – but also to the exceptional instruction they are receiving in the classroom daily.

Other sources to consider: