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Extra Credit: Don't Count on College Credits For AP, IB Courses

Dear Extra Credit:

Why take International Baccalaureate or Advanced Placement courses? This topic has been and will continue to be debated for a long time. The ideal reason would be to take challenging courses. As a former AP teacher, present-day college instructor/AP grader and parent of a college sophomore who took five AP courses, I can see many reasons, many with merit. My high school offered AP and IB biology. At the time, AP aligned almost exactly with college biology 101-102 curricula, but IB did not. This might have changed.

It is unfortunate that Calder Stembel ["IB Students Deserve Some Credit," Nov. 27] feels shortchanged at George Washington University. Students should be warned that not all schools accept AP or IB test results for credit, and that it is not a good reason for taking the classes. It is more likely that a public college will accept AP for credit than a private school, as our daughter found out.


The Midwestern college at which she matriculated did not accept any of her AP courses, even though she received 5s. What was most annoying was that she took calculus BC (second course) in high school and was told that she still had to take a math class. It had to be calculus 3 or an equivalent, not a lower-level course, because she received a 5. Yet her major was in the foreign languages department, not engineering or something for which high-level calculus would be useful. Talk about being punished for doing well.
I hope that colleges will reevaluate their positions on accepting AP and IB credit. Thank you for trying to present balanced opinions on educational topics.

Nancey Parker
Howard Community College

This shocks me. I thought all colleges had ways for us nonmath types who survived calculus in high school to avoid further pain. What happened to Algebraic Uncertainty in "Battlestar Galactica" or Advanced Baseball Statistics? Please send me the name of that college so I can warn my Admissions 101 discussion group.

Dear Extra Credit:

I read with interest your Nov. 27 column. The topic of IB versus AP credit evokes a great deal of teeth-gnashing over issues of fairness. As a longtime IB diploma program coordinator at a local high school and a graduate of George Washington University, I offer the following observations.

Earning college credit by taking high school advanced academic courses is a gift, a concrete recognition of accomplishment. Sure, the credits are fun to talk about, and certainly many credits provide bragging rights and might even save some tuition money.
But the intrinsic gift of learning how to think and being prepared for college study and for life outweigh the credit pay-off. Involvement in IB creates thoughtful, independent learners who understand how to apply their content knowledge in a variety of situations. They often earn college credit. Taking AP courses specifically for college credit might indicate mastery of a test form, but is not necessarily indicative of understanding the content.

Additionally, the scope and sequence of IB courses, higher level (HL) and standard level (SL), most taught over a two-year period, involve students in demanding yet engaging academic rigor, enhanced by varied and multiple assessments, all of which include written components. The more familiar AP courses are a year long. The fewer hours of instructional time per course, it seems, give short shrift to both content and application of knowledge in favor of amassing a greater number of courses and then perhaps more credit.

The side-by-side comparison of time and assessments reveals clear differences. IB English at either the HL or SL level includes a series of expectations designed to develop students' thoughtfulness, quest for knowledge and open-mindedness in ways that encourage not only analysis of literary texts both orally and in writing but also understanding the nature of literary study as it applies to academics as well as to life. Conversely, AP offers an end-of-course exam composed of several elements that assess multiple-choice testing skills and the ability to think fast while writing three analytic essays in a short period.

The bottom line, however, is that there are no guarantees. Credit for IB or AP courses depends on the test score, the year and the department at the college or university granting the credit. My hope is that GW and other institutions that question the rigor of IB will take a closer, more studied look at the demands of each course in comparison with AP to make informed choices about granting credit. Ultimately, what counts is the experience of learning.

Linda Blair

I applaud your standing up for IB and against colleges' senseless policies that give no credit for IB tests but award credit for similar AP tests. But I don't buy your view that IB is deep and AP shallow. IB, unlike AP, does dispense with multiple-choice questions, but the essay portions of AP exams seem to me, who took both AP and IB exams 30 years after leaving college, just as challenging as the IB essays.

Please send your questions, along with your name, e-mail or postal address and telephone number, to Extra Credit, The Washington Post, 526 King St., Suite 515, Alexandria, Va. 22314. Or e-mail

By Washington Post Editors  | February 26, 2009; 10:07 AM ET
Categories:  Extra Credit  
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Next: Will Depth Replace Breadth in Schools?


Whether one gets credit for AP, IB, "dual credit", etc. should be one consideration in choosing a college -- especially since the policy affects the net cost of obtaining a degree. For some students, getting a headstart of a few credits also predicts whether they will end up earning a degree.

It would be nice if colleges tried to make informed decisions about which courses and what grades should exempt which students from what introductory courses. But unless Gates or some other foundation funds such a study, I'm not holding my breath.

Posted by: mct210 | February 28, 2009 10:04 AM | Report abuse

As a parent of two sons who each took seven AP courses in Fairfax county high school, and who also received some credit in college (highly selective, private), I have seen this work out over quite a few years. I realize that for many families, the chance to save a few dollars in tuition money as a result of a high AP or IB score may make the difference in the son/daughter going to college or not. That complicates the more 'academic' discussion of the issue, and few are insensitive to that point of view.

However, I most strongly submit that about the worst possible idea for taking and mastering an AP/IB course in high school would be to take fewer overall courses in college. What a shame that such disciplined effort to reach that level of achievement might result in the student later have less exposure to college work than someone who received no AP/IB credit at all.

Students are in college for a short (but expensive, yes) time compared to the experience they gain. For those who let themselves be drawn into a field where they are required to think deeply about something they would have never have contemplated, this is a gift that keeps on giving over a lifetime -- and one that is also passed on to the next generations. Taking fewer courses because AP/IB credits let you graduate sooner, or with less of a course load, seems to miss the central point of going to college -- becoming educated for the world of the future.

It is also a realistic observation that as wonderful as the AP/IB programs are, they just are not a substitute for a college level course. Use them as a pre-requisite for something more advanced, or to satisfy a distribution requirement (at your peril ... see above), but parents and students, please do not equate the experience in a high school classroom with the average experience your son/daughter gets in the average college classroom. Sure, some college courses are taught by assistants or even by professors who are too busy for their students, but that's the exception in my experience. College courses in major universities in the US are taught by people with a Ph.D. in the field where they are doing active research. Our dedicated high school faculty, highly trained for AP/IB work, just do not bring the same feeling for a field. I love these teachers who helped and motivated my children so much in high school, but these courses are no real substitute for covering the same materials at most upper level colleges and universities, the ones our high-achieving AP/IB students aspire to attend.

So, please consider how the complaints about receiving academic credit for that high AP/IB score are being used. Perhaps it looks like a waste to experience similar subject matter again, but if the university is skeptical about granting equivalence between their version of American History and the AP/IB version, maybe they have a point.

Posted by: postBad | March 2, 2009 4:12 PM | Report abuse

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