Preparing for college: AP vs. IB curriculum

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“[I]t seemed obvious from talking to other parents and students that the AP/IB classes were excellent and would be necessary for getting into a top college,” said Tina Chen, a 2003 graduate of St Paul’s Central High.

Some parents, like Minneapolis parent activist Steve Kotvis, swear by the programs. His son, Kotvis says, graduated the IB program at Southwest High School with “a high level of comfort with holding a conversation with a teacher…It made him very competitive when applying to colleges.”

Like Kotvis, many parents believe in the value of the Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) programs. They’re sometimes described as the keys to building a competitive transcript.

“The IB program is an inclusive program. It is an elite program, but is not elitist,” said Shyamala Jithendranathan, the IB/AP Coordinator at St Paul’s Central High School. “The IB Diploma program is for the average, highly motivated student and not SOLELY for students who have been identified Gifted and Talented.”

Both programs are designed as rigorous college prep programs, said Paula Palmer, the Gifted and Talented Program Coordinator for Minneapolis Public Schools. AP is made up of individual advanced classes, while IB is designed to be a separate, stand-alone curriculum of advanced classes focused on a special set of graduation exams that are rewarded with a special diploma. Students in both Minneapolis and St Paul can take individual IB classes without enrolling in the diploma program, much as they would take AP classes.

Sound pretty similar? Linda Sparling, SPPS Coordinator of Gifted and Talented programs,
described the difference like this: “AP classes are specifically designed to be college-level courses. IB was designed to be a college-readiness program that had to adhere to the highest levels of rigor internationally,” and focused on building critical-thinking and analytical skills.

Some parents aren’t so sure that the programs are as valuable as the school districts make them out to be, and some guidance counselors say it is not necessary for every student with big aspirations to take IB or AP classes. In addition to AP and IB courses, high schools offer other challenging courses, including College in the Schools classes, Post-Secondary Enrollment Options (taking classes in local colleges), and other, school-specific programs.

“Motivation and effort ensure success in AP and IB classes,” said St. Paul’s Jithendranathan, “and all students ought to be encouraged to pursue a rigorous course of study in high school.”

Jeff Zuckerman, a Minneapolis parent at with a son at South High, wrote in an email: “I can tell you that AP classes do not guarantee small class sizes. My son started off the year with 40 kids in his AP Biology class. The teacher had like 50 cents a kid to spend for the year. Okay, an exaggeration–if you really want to know I can find out. It was way under the state average and whatever guideline is set. In Minneapolis the schools work at all only because of the incredible dedication of the teachers.”

As far as the college value of IB and AP, the buck stops at the desk of deans and directors of admissions at Minnesota’s colleges and universities.

Paul Thiboutot, Dean of Admissions at Carleton College, said he and his office don’t particularly care if a student has taken either IB or AP classes, or even if they’ve taken any such classes at all. “What we want is to see a student challenge themselves given the courses offered at their high school.”

“We don’t want to penalize a student for being in a small school or a school with budget issues,” said Wayne Sigler, Director of Admissions at the University of Minnesota.

Not every college or university gives credits for AP and IB courses, exams, or diplomas completed in high school. Thiboutot said Carleton’s policy depends on the department, with some departments refusing to grant any credits, and others requiring introductory courses before any credit is given. Sigler said the University’s policy varies from department to department, but generally rewards students for good scores on IB and AP exams from high school.

While AP and IB classes aren’t always the best fit for every student’s learning style, Thiboutot said he would encourage students to take those classes if it’s the best way to challenge themselves. Like Thiboutot, Sigler wants to see transcripts with good grades, earned in “the most rigorous class where you’ll do well. We don’t want students to get in over their heads.”

James Sanna (james.sanna@gmail.com) is a freelance writer, who frequently covers education issues.

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Who Pays for IB and AP?
The College Board and International Baccalaureate charge substantial fees for certifying classes, training teachers, and grading exams. (The IB program also includes review and assessment of some student coursework.) But many students don’t have to pay a thing. That’s because the State of Minnesota subsidizes the per-student and per-exam costs: $86 per exam for AP tests, and an average of $600 per student in the IB diploma program; schools are also charged $8,850 per year to be part of the IB diploma program. In both programs, students who do not receive free and reduced-price lunch may have to pay a nominal fee to take the exams, but otherwise the state Department of Education pays the fees required by the AP and IB organizations, says Linda Sparling, SPPS Coordinator of Gifted and Talented programs.

Two years ago, the College Board implemented new certification requirements for AP classes. Many schools have classes that are in the process of certification by the College Board. Schools may offer AP tests in subjects that are not currently offered as AP classes. Students may take an AP exam even if they have not enrolled in an AP course for that subject.

St. Paul Central High School’s counseling web page on AP notes that AP exams are graded on a 1-5 scale and that, “approximately two-thirds of all AP test takers receive AP grades of at least 3. This grade is regarded as an indicator of an ability to do successful work at most colleges.”

If a student wants to take an IB exam in a subject, they must also take the corresponding IB class. Highland Senior High’s IB web page describes student choices within IB:

• They may pursue the full IB Diploma.
• They may pursue the IB Honors curriculum.
• They may take IB examinations in individual subjects.
• They may take the IB courses in areas of interests without taking examinations.

“I’m really glad they were in IB,” said Lynnell Mickelsen, speaking of her two sons, graduates of Southwest High in Minneapolis. “I think they got a good education and they both say college is easier than high school (and they’re at good schools).”

St Paul AP and IB schools

Johnson High School – AP

Arlington High School – AP

Central High School – AP, IB diploma program offered

Humboldt Senior High School – AP

Open School – AP

Harding High School –IB diploma program offered

Highland Park High School –IB diploma program offered

Como Park Senior High School – AP

Minneapolis AP and IB schools

Edison High School – AP

North High School – AP

Roosevelt High School – AP

South High School – AP

Southwest High School – AP, IB diploma program offered

Washburn High School –AP

Henry High School – IB diploma program offered

Edison, North, Roosevelt and Washburn are candidates for the IB program. Application and certification for the IB program is a multi-year process.