AP and IB Curricula: Are They Worth It? A Look Into Student Perspectives and Alternatives
May 22, 2023
Students Evaluate the Effectiveness of AP and IB Classes
Apprehensive warning lights flash on students’ dashboards as May looms, when intense study schedules and late-night review cramming, already characteristic to Westwood students, grow in severity. The imminent stress overwhelming the halls and plaguing students indicates Advanced Placement (AP) and International Barriculate (IB) testing season has begun.
College Board’s AP program aims to give high school students a glimpse into college academics and course rigor, and help students discover passions.
“Taking AP can help you develop college skills [such as] time management, critical thinking, and scholarly writing,” the College Board Website said.
AP exams require a $97 starting fee, and those who score high, 3s, 4s, or 5s, are likely to earn college credit. With the ambition of most teachers being for students to get a 5 on the exam, the curriculum is often dictated by exam preparation rather than offering students an in-depth understanding of concepts. Learning based solely around acing a test raises questions about student retention of material and whether teachers should teach beyond what is covered on the exam.
Students were emailed a survey asking them to evaluate their experiences with the AP and IB curriculums.
“IB Economics is my favorite AP/IB class because of the way in which it is taught,” one anonymous student said. “Mr. Blaine [the AP and IB economics teacher] consistently emphasizes a method of learning in which students are encouraged to gain total ownership over their learning and fully understand every concept. We are thus actually learning, instead of just memorizing what is told to us like in some other classes.”
Teachers who are successful in balancing test preparation and deeper learning are praised when students receive high scores on their exams. However, teachers who attempt to stretch instruction beyond the prescribed curriculum at the expense of their students’ test scores receive backlash.
“If there were no exams, then learning the material would be better for the individual,” one student said. “On the other hand if there are exams, they determine many future possibilities, so teachers should prepare the students for the exam.”
Many students agree that an ideal AP class would balance teaching beyond the curriculum and adequate test preparation, or teach what will earn a student a 5 and offer additional learning resources if a student is interested.
“I think they should at least instruct you on how to achieve a high score on exams, like test-taking strategies and rubrics, but should put a greater attention on teaching content above and beyond,” one student said. “While some kids just take certain classes for the credit, lots of students are thoroughly interested in the topics being presented and content-based learning really allows students to have a greater grasp on their learning.”
Though some students would ideally like to learn outside the curriculum, AP exams are important to college applications, majors, and credits, meaning the significance of scoring well often outweighs deeper learning.
“I come to school to learn, so I like [to] learn as much information as possible,” one student said. “That being said, I would much prefer to actually pass an expensive test at the end of the year than not.”
The IB curriculum offers advanced learning while targeting concerns of AP regarding student retention and going beyond memorization, as the program stresses in-depth learning. However, with both curriculums there is great emphasis on the exams themselves, diminishing the value placed on learning for the sake of learning. The IB format that requires a certain number of Standard Level (SL) and Higher Level (HL) classes and a minimum score of 24/45 to receive the IB diploma only contributes to the desire to earn high test scores. AP offers the ability to pick and choose classes, so in theory, this pressure is alleviated, but with the current mindset that students must take as many AP exams as possible, its flexible nature is defeated.
“If AP was as unconventional in teaching as IB, but less pretentious, less emphasis on tests, and maintain[ed] an ability to pick and choose classes without committing a path (or requiring AP classes in everything) then it would be the best advanced curriculum,” one student said.
A greater focus on the “so what” aspect of a concept, and its meaning outside the interdisciplinary context of AP classes are priorities in IB. Most IB classes have a discussion-based structure, meaning learning is driven by students’ engagement. In addition, IB exams are almost completely free-response, which encourages more analytical thinking and allows students to take charge of their understanding.
“I think AP classes are very good and do prepare students, although they do have a problem in terms of prioritizing memorization and not teaching students how to reflect on their place in the world or how to articulate their own thinking as well,” one student said.
Despite the flaws in the AP program, it offers its fair share of benefits, such as typically consistent college credits. Furthermore, when surveyed, the majority of respondents (56.1%) said they are confident or very confident AP and IB classes are preparing them for college and beyond. The majority of responses (58.6%) also said they retain the information presented to them in AP and IB classes somewhat well or well.
However, 66.7% of respondents said that AP and IB tests are inaccurate representations of intelligence, showing the motivation for scoring high mostly comes from credits and other benefits offered to high-achieving marks.
“As a student who will have taken 14 AP exams by the time I graduate, I can honestly say that I can’t imagine high school without AP,” one student said. “I can’t foresee any alternative to AP that would maintain the same level of rigor while being consistent with the national standard. I believe that many students who seek to learn college content ahead would be at a serious disadvantage.”
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The Structure of AP & IB Curricula Needs to Change
As stress levels culminate and testing anxiety permeates the halls, it is a clear sign that it is testing season. Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) testing occurs during the month of May, and they allow students to receive college credits from their classes if they obtain a certain score. Despite the preparation and college readiness that these programs aim to bestow on their students, the exams are flawed and should not dictate the classroom or be a metric of one’s intelligence.
The Problem With AP & IB Exams
The AP and IB programs were created with the purpose of equipping high school students with the necessary skills and preparation to build a better future. “Thinkers, Communicators, and Risk-Takers” are among the many learner qualities that the IB program strives to instill within its students. However, the purpose of these values crumbles as participating in these rigorous and content-heavy classes confines students to overhauling and memorizing a year’s worth of content in just a few weeks. They miss the opportunity to gain these important life skills in the hassle of cramming content they won’t be able to retain after the exam.
“Much of the material learned over the class is forgotten shortly after the test, so we should focus on ways of learning that really immerse the student in their studies, as that is more applicable to the real world,” an anonymous student said.
Back-to-back tests, intense workloads, and unhealthy levels of stress are what AP & IB curriculums entail to put students’ college readiness to the test. However, these structures are not an indication or replication of college life. Although college classes may cover the same content, classes occur less often and are more project-based, giving students more time and freedom to learn. If these programs truly wish to prepare the students for their futures in college, then they must be an accurate representation of the university and not burn their students out in the process with a heavy workload.
At the end of the day, a year of intense workload simply comes down to one test. No matter the effort one puts in or the grades one receives throughout the year, students have one chance to prove to College Board or the IB Organization if they should receive college credit. The principle behind this remains arbitrary and unfair. A student’s performance could have faltered on the day of their exam, or they just might not be the best at taking such exams. However, to take away their chance of receiving the college credits after they endured the difficulty of the class, and even succeeded in it, is unfair.
“I think it’s better to measure you on how well you’ve performed over the course of the class,” an anonymous student said. “The tests favor students who are just better test takers, faster readers, and who have greater access to study materials and better teachers.”
Out of the ten months in a school year, teachers have to allot almost an entire month to simply review content and the structure of the exams. That is one whole month gone towards preparing for the exam — one month that could’ve gone diving deeper into content, doing projects, and learning more about the subject. Students’ free learning is not only being restricted by these exams but also teachers’ freedom to teach beyond what is written in the curriculum. These exams that last just a few hours dictate the whole trajectory of the school year and hinder free learning.
“I think [with] the time we have and the amount of information we have to learn, it is very difficult to teach beyond the material,” a student said. “I would love to learn the content above and beyond the test since teachers who do that tend to have engaging classes and higher scores in the AP [and] IB tests.”
A Look To Alternatives
In order to combat the poor retention and intense stress from AP and IB classes, College Board and the IB Organization must take inspiration in what they’re attempting to prepare students for: college classes. By replicating the framework of college classes, high schools foster an environment where students can learn freely and truly understand what is needed in college.
Discussion-styled learning, a major component of college classes, is the first implementation that these programs should consider as it will counter the tendency to memorize and cram content. Students lead the discussion circles and offer their different perspectives rather than just being fed lesson plans and slideshows that cover concrete ideas. This not only is a more accurate method of preparing students for college but also a way to increase student motivation. These discussions and seminars replacing the abundance of notes and homework assignments can be just as effective in preparing students for their exams while also allowing students to develop the critical values that programs like IB advocate for.
While IB already heavily focuses on projects, AP must also integrate more project-based learning into its grading system. This will be giving students an opportunity to apply their knowledge outside the bounds of the AP exam and will enable them to practice free learning. These large projects should factor into whether students should receive college credit for the class because if they can apply concepts to the real world, they should be recognized for their mastery of the subject.
Lastly, there needs to be a more holistic approach to determining whether students should receive college credit or not- the entire outcome of a class cannot ride on a single exam. Instead, these projects and assignments throughout the year should weigh into whether one receives college credit or not.
The AP and IB programs are essential components in building better futures for high school students, but there needs to be a change in their structure and exams to ensure that students are actively learning and preparing for college and beyond.
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