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International Baccalaureate vs. Advanced Placement

Which of these rigorous programs provides the best college prep?

Published on: April 10, 2014

boy with computer sitting on stack of booksSo, you live in a city that has magnet schools and you have the option of choosing a high school that offers Advanced Placement (AP) classes or one with the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP).  

Both programs are designed to academically challenge students and help prepare them for the college of their choice.

Which should you choose?


Proponents of Advanced Placement, a U.S. program founded in 1955 and administered by the College Board (the same body responsible for the SAT exam), will tell you that it is a well-known, well-established program. Most colleges award college credit to students who pass high school AP end-of-course exams. 

The AP pilot exam was given in 1956, four years after faculty from elite prep schools joined college professors to develop a plan “to work together as part of a continuous process, to see themselves as two halves of a common enterprise.”  The common enterprise was to graduate high school students who would be prepared for the rigors of college.  

In 1968, the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme was founded by a few  progressive teachers from the International School of Geneva, with assistance from several other international schools, in part “to facilitate the international mobility of students.” It has evolved into a global nonprofit organization, with over 1,600 schools in the United States and four programs: primary, middle school, the high school diploma program, and an IB career certification program, also at the high-school level.

The IB high school diploma program, the program most analogous to AP classes, is a two-year course of study that takes place in the junior and senior years of high school. Over 800 schools in the U.S. offer this program. Proponents of the IBDP point to a rigorous two-year program, which puts more emphasis on writing and research, foreign language and global citizenship than on traditional curriculum.

Program differences

As a global program, one of the major differences between the IB and AP programs is IB's focus on world history rather than U.S. history.  IB also focuses more on writing: students in the DP are required to complete a thesis-like paper. In addition to this “extended essay,” which requires that students “focus on a topic of global significance, examined through the lens of at least two DP subjects,” the core of IB also includes: “Theory of Knowledge,” a course on critical thinking and  “creativity, action and service,” which involves activities outside of the classroom.

Colleen Duffy, communications and marketing associate director of IB, says the word she uses to describe the program is “holistic.” The testing involves less multiple questions than AP tests and is more dependent on essay writing. Teachers and schools are required to go through curriculum training. 

AP classes typically begin in junior year and are often preceded by pre-AP classes, so that in larger high schools there can be something like an honors tracking system, with pre-AP classes beginning in freshman year.  Students can self-select for AP classes and may choose to take them in only one subject.  They also can choose whether or not to take the exam for college credit. Individual high school teachers structure the advanced placement classes. The College Board makes available some supporting materials, but teachers are not required to use them.  There are also optional training conferences for teachers. 

Where can you find AP and IB?

Anya Kompare, an IB graduate from Chicago says she is excited that her daughters are in an IB middle school program because her experience with the high school program was so positive. She says the IB learner profile, essentially a mission statement of ten desired learner attributes, helps to facilitate student learning. 

Kompare is in Chicago, a city that has expanded its IB high school programs, based in part on a University of Chicago study that showed that going through the IBDP had a positive effect on college persistence.

Not all regions in the U.S. offer the choice between AP and IB programs. Arkansas, for example, requires that all public school districts in the state offer AP courses. Florida has the highest rate of IB programs. New England has the fewest.

Kevin Flores, currently a counselor at Urbana High School in Urbana, Illinois, a school which offers AP classes, previously worked in Omaha, Nebraska. That school district had high schools offering both AP classes and IB diploma programs. Flores said there was some competition among AP and IB schools for the “best and brightest students.”

There might be the perception that, because of selective admission in many IB programs, IB is more rigorous than the AP program. But this isn’t always the case.  Each school participating in the IB program can make a decision whether to offer the diploma program through open or selective enrollment.

“At the DP level, the school decides the criteria,” states Robin Kahn, communications and marketing director at the IB Organization.  One of the benefits of the AP program is that any student can self-select a subject she is interested in and take that for AP credit, without undertaking an entire AP lineup. This can also be true of the IB program. Students can take select IB courses without pursuing the full diploma, if the school decides to allow it. 


IB programs cost the school, the school district and the student significantly more to participate in than AP programs do. This is partly due to teacher training, curriculum development and testing costs. In addition, each school offering the DP is charged a $4,000 application fee and a yearly $10,000 fee. It is up to individual schools and districts to distribute those costs between schools and students.

In terms of cost to the individual schools districts, AP courses do not differ markedly from non-AP courses. The only cost for a student is the AP Exam fee. Students who qualify for the federal free and reduced lunch program are eligible for AP Exam fee reductions.

There have been some pilot studies done (one supported in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation) about IB outreach to lower-income neighborhoods and students. Kahn cites Chicago as an example of a school district that has deliberately put IB programs in some economically challenged neighborhoods in order to improve the quality of and opportunities offered at neighborhood schools. Other cities, including Atlanta and Seattle, also offer IB programs in low-income  neighborhoods (identified by number of free and reduced lunch recipients). In 2009, 16% of IB Diploma candidates came from low-income families.

Academic Comparison

In 2007, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute persuaded five scholars to assist with a project of reviewing and comparing the AP/IB tests. They reviewed four test subjects — biology, mathematics, composition and literature/history for content, rigor, and clarity.

The "grades" for most subjects were similar, though the IB results came in slightly higher. The strengths and weaknesses of each program varied slightly. The AP calculus test, for example, received a C+. One weakness was  “overreliance on technology, resulting in a de-emphasis on analytic skills.” IB math received a B-, with the same comment.  Evaluators also said some important pre-university content was missing, but praised the clearly written curriculum guide. The IB review also cited a weak overview of U.S. history. 

Preferences are often based on individual experience. Kevin Flores, whose Illinois school district offers only AP classes, is an AP fan.

“The thing I like most about students taking AP classes, is that it gives them the confidence to do well in college," he says. "Even if they don’t take the test, or don’t do well enough on the test to receive college credit, they have gained skills that are going to help them in college.” 

Kompare, the IB graduate, sees the IB program’s strength as a focus on effective written and verbal communication and critical thinking. She says she has held a number of different kinds of jobs and that the “communication skills, critical thinking, curiosity, empathy and open-mindedness" developed and encouraged in the IB programs allowed her to be effective in various roles at a variety of organizations.

College credit and admission

Financially, AP courses can be a plus for students who score high enough on the end-of-course exams to receive college credit. Flores mentioned one student who was able to receive 56 college credits through AP testing. Students are allowed to take an AP test for college credit without actually taking an AP class. Even Kompare, the IB graduate, took the AP exams to get college credit.

Although there have been recent debates over whether AP exams are taken seriously by colleges, the College Board surveyed almost 2,600 colleges in 2013 and 99% report granting credit for at least one AP exam.  

As IB becomes more prominent in the U.S., some colleges are accepting IB credits, but currently, the pathway to that credit is less defined than AP credit. However, both programs are well regarded by college admissions officers, in terms of  their academic rigor.

Many college admissions officers look favorably on IB programs when making admission decisions, and go out of their way to recruit IBDP students. Many schools also offer scholarships for graduates of the IB program.

Vive la difference!

Despite program and philosophical differences, academic choice is good, and having more than one rigorous academic program can impact competition, which may strengthen both programs.

For example, according to Deborah Davis, Director of the AP College Readiness Communication, in 2014 the AP Capstone program will offer a seminar dealing with philosophical and critical thinking skills and an extended research project that can lead to an AP Capstone Certificate.

Yet some selective admissions high schools have opted not to use either the AP or the IB curriculum, saying that neither program allows for individual and teacher vision and values.

Bruce Hammond, from Albuquerque’s Sandia High School, heads a consortium of private and selective admission public schools determined not to use either AP or IB because of confines in subject matter and pedagogy. While he speaks against the kind of testing involved in the AP exams, Hammond does understand that AP classes cannot be made deeper and less dependent on memorization, unless college entrance exams and introductory courses are also changed.

For people who do not favor the kind of testing that AP classes are required to teach toward, IB provides an alternative, and the writing component is definitely stronger.  But there is also some concern that the core IB curriculum does not furnish enough arts and music.

In the end, the choice of IB or AP will probably be based on your region, your school district and the personality of your high school student.  One size doesn’t fit all.

However, almost everyone agrees on a few key attributes:

  • Good teachers are essential to any good program.
  • Good programs have the power to transform students who are willing to work hard to learn. 

Learn more

International Baccalaureate

Advanced Placement





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