AP vs IB

AP: different, not easier

A senior prank and the student reaction that followed, got Darcie Flansburg thinking about comparing the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP) with Advanced Placement (AP).

End of year prank

The last week of school has always been a week full of pranks orchestrated by the grade 12 students. This year, one of their pranks was to send a fake email to the grade 11 students informing them of a change to their curriculum – the school would be moving from the International Baccalaureate (IB) program to the American Advanced Placement (AP) curriculum.

The point of the email was to send panic amongst the grade 11 students, but their response was not what I or the Grade 12s expected. Quite the opposite in fact.

Yes!” cried one of my students while reading the email, “that’s so much easier.”

Now having taught AP English courses for 12 years, prior to becoming an IB DP teacher, I know from experience that it’s not easier, it’s just different.

“Really?” I say, “but you complain when I ask you to write one timed essay in an 80-minute class period. How is writing three essays in two hours easier?”

“But we wouldn’t have to do the EE” the student says, lamenting their recent work on the IB Extended Essay.

“But that EE is helping you prepare for what you will be doing in university.”

I try to reason with them, explaining that the Extended Essay is the type of assignment they will do regularly in university classes. But my words fall on deaf ears. They feel overwhelmed by the IB Diploma Program. And, in a way, they are right. The IB program is ‘harder’ than the AP program, in that, it is a program and not just individual classes that students can pick from.

The differences in a nutshell

AP courses, by themselves, are objectively harder. Everything has to be learned in one year and the exams are much longer and more involved.

In IB courses students have two years to complete a single course and the exam components are broken up into smaller pieces with students sitting for different exam components on different days.

Students can sit AP exams whether or not they are taking the actual AP course. They can also choose to retake an exam the following year to improve their score. IB students can also sit for IB exams without taking the actual course, and they can retake their exams the following year, but there are some restrictions

IB coursework is assessed both internally and externally. So, this is more work for the IB teachers who also have to ensure that students are following the exam requirements and that all necessary materials are covered in the course curriculum. AP exams, however, are externally assessed and there are no rules for what the teacher is required to teach, other than helping the students prepare for the exams.

The IB program also has required components outside of the courses: students have to write an Extended Essay, a long research paper that spans Grade 11 and 12. Students also have to earn hours of experience outside of their academic courses in the areas of Creativity, Activity, and Service (CAS). For example, I have CAS students in my journalism course who write articles and earn hours for Creativity, but do not earn an academic grade.

AP students can take as many AP courses as they want, but don’t have to sit for exams. The closest thing AP has to a ‘program’ is the AP Capstone Diploma Program. Achieving this diploma requires a minimum score in several AP courses including AP Seminar and AP Research. These two courses are also not open to all students, but the College Board is working to expand its Access and Equity.

The IB Diploma Program requires completion in core DP courses designated as Standard Level (SL) and Higher Level (HL), along with the EE and CAS. A student cannot complete the program without meeting all requirements. This is often known as ‘full IB’. Some students may be enrolled in IB courses, but may not be completing all of the DP requirements.

AP students can also achieve the AP International Diploma by earning a score of 3 or higher on 5 or more AP exams from specific categories. This diploma is only available for students outside of the US or US students planning to attend university abroad. Additionally, AP course syllabi are initially audited by the College Board in order for a teacher to be approved to teach the course, but after that there is no accountability as to the level of rigor or the course efficacy. IB programs, however, are regularly evaluated to ensure that they meet IB standards.

Why the IBDP is unique

As an international teacher, who has also taught in the US, I find that the IB program is more appropriate for international students and better prepares students for university expectations. I like the fact that the IB English curriculum includes translated texts as well as texts written in English, and also that it has an oral component rather than a multiple choice test.

Both programs have their merit, and both programs give students the opportunity to earn college credit depending on how they perform on their exams and coursework. Not all universities, however, will offer credit for passing AP or IB exams.


Final thoughts

As my students fantasize about the AP curriculum, I remind myself that no matter what, they will find something to complain about. They are teenagers. Complaining is their favorite pastime. And no matter what curriculum they learn, all that matters is that they use their critical thinking skills, which they are evidently using by comparing and contrasting the rigor of both programs. So, I guess we are doing something right.


Darcie Flansburg teaches English at the American International School of Guangzhou in Guangzhou, China. She holds a Masters of Education in Educational Leadership.





And thank you to the students at AISG for prompting the discussion and analysis that lead to this article.


FEATURE IMAGE:  by Mohamed Hassan from Pixabay
Support images:   by Siora Photography on Unsplash and Gerd Altmann from Pixabay 

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