Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate?
Parent Question: My daughter’s high school offers both the Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs. Will these programs sufficiently meet the academic needs of my gifted child? How do I know if they are appropriate for her?
Expert Answer: Advanced Placement (AP) courses and the International Baccalaureate (IB) program are both designed to provide opportunities beyond what the high school curriculum traditionally offers. The AP program, which is structured around a curriculum representing introductory college courses, allows students to enroll only in those courses in which they exhibit both ability and interest. In contrast, the IB program combines advanced content knowledge with a focus on the development of critical thinking and an appreciation of global issues. Earning an IB diploma requires a multiyear commitment across disciplines.
Research has documented that gifted students tend to find the teachers and the curriculum of both AP and IB courses challenging and far superior to other courses in their high schools. Certainly these options offer sufficient challenge to meet the academic needs of many gifted students, but not all. Students also report great satisfaction in being in classes with equally motivated and advanced peers.
Yet the content of AP science and math courses often does not enable gifted students to achieve an in-depth understanding of the discipline. Classroom observations and interviews with students and teachers also demonstrate that there is limited opportunity for the pursuit of individual interests or passions in these courses. The IB program provides greater opportunity for in-depth pursuit of a topic and greater emphasis on deep understanding than on the acquisition of information.
Students who are likely to succeed in AP and IB programs have a record of high achievement, are willing to work hard and to devote much out-of-school time to absorbing knowledge, have developed the prerequisite skills for the courses, are confident and self-motivated multitaskers, and manage their time well.
Those for whom AP and IB are not suitable options seem to be nonconforming students who resist the strict curriculum that is set forth. They dislike following inflexible syllabi driven by the goal of high performance on the tests that measure success. Students who question the structure of a fixed curriculum or who wish to explore new ideas or concepts through research or applied knowledge may be uncomfortable in AP courses or the IB program.
However, there is much variability among and within schools in the ways that AP courses are taught and the IB program is run. Some teachers are extremely knowledgeable and are willing and able to adapt a very structured curriculum to the particular needs of students; other teachers lack the mastery of their discipline or sufficient understanding of gifted students to realize the AP or IB classroom’s potential.
Here are some questions to ask about the AP and IB programs at your daughter’s school and about other options for meeting her academic needs:
- Are the teachers well prepared in the disciplines they are teaching?
- Are they willing to accommodate your daughter’s learning needs and styles and to respond to the interests and passions of their students?
- Do they understand the needs of gifted students?
- Do they emphasize the joy of learning in addition to the test scores to be earned at the end of the course of study?
- Does the school offer internships and mentorships that might enable your daughter to explore a profession or investigate questions of interest and importance?
- Does the AP program or the IB program offer a closer match between your daughter’s talents and interest and the school’s curricular options? Is the content or instruction in one program or the other better suited to her learning styles?
There is no simple answer to your question. Either AP or IB is likely to provide more advanced content and greater challenge than other courses, as well as the opportunity to earn college credit, and success in these programs is highly regarded by college admissions offices. However, the true value of these learning opportunities depends on the fit between your daughter’s learning style, motivation, and preparation for the challenges offered by AP and IB.
—Carolyn M. Callahan, PhD
Carolyn M. Callahan is chair of the Department of Leadership, Foundations, and Policy at the University of Virginia. She holds a doctoral degree in educational psychology with an emphasis in gifted education and developed the Summer and Saturday Program for gifted students at the university.