Beyond the IBDP and the AP program

Two of the most popular high-caliber programs around the world are the IBDP and the AP, which are regarded by many schools, colleges and universities as valid indicators of high academic quality and performance. Most international schools classify themselves as either IB World Schools or American AP School, with some intrepid ones combining both programs in their curricula. According to the Journal of Advanced Academics, the enriched curricula of both programs are “meant to bridge the transition between high school and postsecondary studies by offering academically prepared students a more rigorous high school experience.”

All these international programs, including the Cambridge International Examinations, IGCSE or A-levels are gaining popularity and finding a niche in particular countries and regions. Hayde’s research published in the Introduction to International Education Book, found out that the rapid growth of the IB in East Asia and around the world establishes the IB as perhaps the key agent in international education, while the College Board tells us that over the past decade, the number of students who graduate from high school having taken AP courses has nearly doubled.

After having had experience in several programs and curricula and having gone through the changes and adaptations to new demands in society and education over the last two decades, many educators, including me, started to epistemologically and pedagogically wonder about the the structure of these programs, particularly their final assessments, and above all, what the role of teachers’ on-going assessment and professional judgement is on students´ final reporting.

This paper is an invitation to reflect on the importance and significance of the road rather than merely the final destination. What is being presented corresponds to an alternative being implemented at the International School Ho Chi Minh City American Academy (a Cognita School in Vietnam), which focuses on the whole learning process and not just a proficiency final exam.

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About The Final Performance Exams

For both the IBDP and AP Program, most of the educational efforts are oriented towards the final exam provided by their respective institutions. With this in mind, teachers are under constant pressure to prepare students for a test that will determine whether they are qualified or not for college credit or university-level studies. Through the school year students are exposed to a variety of teaching methodologies, assessment strategies and varied didactic approaches intended to help them master the content, pass the exam and possibly get some college credit. Both programs agree that taking a higher level and increased rigorous class prepare the students with the skills to tackle future demanding academic college life in terms of time management, study skills and expectations, however, whether we like it or not, the final exams still mean a lot.

It is also accepted that many admissions officers look at the transcripts for patterns of self-demand and higher expectations, in which case, the AP and IBDP classes play an important role; however, very unlikely they look at their performance in their respective classes to grant credit. Rather, admissions officers typically review the official exam report from either the AP College Board or the IBO to do so. The exam results, are therefore great differentiators. In Asia, for example, recent research on IB schools shows that “particularly DP schools, tend to prioritize cognitive attributes in order to maintain or boost their reputations because of the competitive market situation in the region, and parental and student aspirations for access to highly ranked international universities,” according to Journal of Research in International Education. The pressure on results comes from different fronts and whether we want to accept it or not, it is an imperative goal for our students to succeed in these exams and for teachers to make any effort to help them do so.

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Research indicates that both AP and IBDP exams have internal consistency and reliability, therefore, their results can be seen as “valid” and “objective indicators” of students’ learning. However, we know that learning is far more than a set a answers to specific questions in a particular exam. Additionally, there are many teachers with exceptional cases where students score low on these exams with no apparent reason for such performance. Yes, we can ask for a revision of the exam, and then we may get a slight change, but still they may get a no-passing grade. When something like this happens, both students and teachers usually end-up with unanswered questions, a bitter taste and probably some guilt for their performance. As educators, we know of multiple factors that affect test performance other than lack of skills, knowledge and competencies; we talk about, for example, test anxiety, which is a normal disposition to a perceived threat or concern. However, there is also the “X-Factor” which is that thing we cannot really find an explanation for and has nothing to do with a specific variable, but probably is a combination of many factors including illness, stress, unfamiliarity, parental/societal pressure, etc.

But what do we do when we have these cases of low performance in an exam but exceptional performance and dispositions throughout the course of a year? Will a teacher’s personal judgement and on-going assessment be taken into consideration? Very likely in many universities or colleges, the answer is no. There is a still a marked misconception that a final test result is a very “objective” predictor of college success. And yet, schools end up limiting years of student achievement to the score on one test. Is this fair for the student? Is this fair for the teacher and institution who have invested so much time and effort in their holistic education to reduce everything to just one checkpoint? What about multiple data points to make an informed decision about student learning? Where do we leave all the qualitative information we have about students that can tell their “true” story?

However, since one of our objectives as an academic institution is to prepare students for college, we need to continue providing students with opportunities to find their own path in order to be ready for a life away from the comfort of a high school setting. Therefore, taking into account all these considerations and after a meticulous research for high performing college level classes for our students, at the International School Ho Chi Minh City American Academy in Vietnam, we decided to incorporate a new model of dual enrollment which is an organized system with special guidelines that allows high school students to take college-level courses where they are considered as regular college students. But, why do we think it goes beyond the IBDP and the AP Program?

Female student taking notes from a book at library. Young asian woman sitting at table doing assignments in college library. Vintage effect style pictures.

An Alternative On The Horizon

One way to overcome the stress of one-exam checkpoint only could be a program that also values the process, places only partial weight on final exams and offers students a broad spectrum of courses from traditional “hard-core” academics like Physics, Chemistry, Economics to more diverse and 21st century-oriented courses like Entrepreneurship, Economic Ideas and Issues, Gender and Literary Texts, Forensic Science, etc. These characteristics and some others are met and provided by the Syracuse University Project Advanced Program (SUPA) which corresponds to one of the many dual enrollment programs currently in place in the US. This program in particular (supa.syr.edu):

• Offers innovative and challenging Syracuse University courses to qualified high school students at their local high schools, during their regularly scheduled high school day.

• Increases students’ college readiness by providing college readiness tools, programs, and services.

• Provides continuous professional development for teachers and ongoing dialogue between the University faculty and the high school teachers.

• Conducts extensive ongoing research and evaluation in support of systemically improving instruction and smoothing the transition from high school to postsecondary education.

As an adjunct instructor of SUPA Chemistry and having had previous experience both in IBDP and AP, I would like to highlight the following advantages of SUPA:

• For a SUPA Class, not everything is the final exam. As a matter of fact, the final exam is only a small percentage of the whole grade, usually only 20%. The on-going learning assessment, internal evaluations and class projects constitute a great deal in the final grade of the student. The journey can be more important than the final destination.

• The SUPA course content is the same as the equivalent college course. Instructors are not allowed to waterdown academic quality. For example, a student in any SUPA class is as prepared as any AP or IBDP student in their corresponding subject.

• When students pass the class and are officially enrolled in the course, they automatically earn college credit, which is transferable to several colleges and universities in the USA and world-wide institutions that accept U.S.A university credits.

• Class offering is versatile and allows students to take classes not traditionally taught in a high school setting.

• There is continuous communication with the Associate Professor in Syracuse. They provide the final exams and carry-out classroom observations and conferences with our high school students.

• As adjunct instructors we are entitled with the privileges of a part-time faculty member and therefore have access to their resources like library and online databases for research. Students are also officially registered and can also have access to these resources.

• In the case of chemistry, every summer there are 2 scholarships for instructors to carry out chemistry research over the summer and be involved in hands-on practical work.

• There is a collaborative network of over 200 partner schools and 800 certified instructors.

Some Potential Limitations 

As any other program there are some limitations that may affect its adoption in some schools. These are perhaps the ones we have found the most relevant:

Class offerings are limited by the availability of qualified instructors. In order to become an instructor there are some qualifications and professional criteria that must be met by instructors. For example, it is expected in many cases to have a Master’s degree in the corresponding area or significant experience teaching at a higher level.

All instructors must attend the initial seminar at Syracuse University. Even though the training itself has no cost, there are costs associated to transportation and hotel in Syracuse.

Not all school are accepted to be part of SUPA. Schools must go through a selection process and meet the requirements for acceptance.

It is not as recognized as AP or IBDP. This is true, but upon passing the class, students earn college credit. On the contrary, even with 5 on AP or 7 on IBDP, there is no guarantee that all colleges/universities will grant credit for the class.

Students pay for credit hour. It could be bit more expensive than an AP or IBDP Exam, but still it is cheaper than the actual class in college.

Instructors must teach the class at least once every three years to remain active. When this criteria is not met, instructors must go back to Syracuse for a Summer Training.

Conclusions

As we can see there is no perfect program in education, but at least this is a field concerned with continuous improvement and the development of meaningful student learning. SUPA has proven to have some advantages over the IBDP and the traditional AP, which we also offer, and certainly is increasing its popularity among students, particularly for the versatility in class offerings. What SUPA provides is a class environment that values teachers’ professional judgment, internal on-going evaluations and the journey more than a final destination or exam. Teachers follow a college-level curriculum, but their authentic on-going assessments count. As a faculty member, teachers’ professional judgment, their methods, experiences and internal assessments are valid indicators of student achievement and success, their voice is heard and their results validated.

As a further internal research project, we would like to have students take the AP exam after taking a corresponding SUPA class and find out the success rate for comparison purposes, however, we haven’t had these cases yet.