Is an International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma a good choice?

By Rajkamal Rao  

Many US school districts are offering high school students in the 11th and 12th grades a choice to graduate with an International Baccalaureate® (IB) diploma.  The IB program is not new.  It has been around since 1968.  It is only in the last ten years or so that US school districts have begun to recognize that this could be an additional path for gifted and talented students.

An IB curriculum aims to do more than other curricula by developing inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who are motivated to succeed.  According to IBO, the non-profit educational foundation which oversees the IB program, more than 4,000 schools so far have chosen to teach this curriculum with its "unique academic rigor and their emphasis on students’ personal development."  More than one million students worldwide are studying for their IB diplomas.

In all states, students must also complete graduation requirements for each state over and above the IB diploma.  For example, in Texas, IB students must fulfill TEA elective requirements – so some TEA required courses (like Health, Technology, Communications) may have to be taken in the 9th and 10th grades, or in accelerated summer sessions, or online, or at external institutions, before entering the IB program.

Students who pursue the IB diploma must take six subjects: one each from Groups 1–5 and either one from Group 6 or a permitted substitute from one of the other groups. Three or four subjects must be taken at Higher level (HL) and the rest at Standard level (SL).  The IB recommends a minimum of 240 hours of instructional time for HL courses and 150 hours for SL courses.

So, how does the math work out? In Texas, students are expected to spend 75,600 minutes of instruction each school year including recesses and breaks. This amounts to 1,260 hours a school year, over 36 weeks or 180 days, or 7 hours a school day. If one subtracts an hour each day for lunch, recesses, and breaks, we are left with 6 hours of learning each day, or 1,080 hours a school year.

A full high school credit can be earned by typically completing 135 hours of learning. In a double-blocked environment, this equates to eight credits a year (1,080/135). At 150 hours, therefore, an SL course is the equivalent of completing one course a year, plus a little more. At 240 hours, an HL course is a little less than two courses a year. An HL course is roughly equivalent to a double-blocked course, but the student earns only one credit.

The reputation of the program shows.  Even for the Ivy Leagues, IB acceptance rates are marginally higher than traditional HS degrees.  For many in the Top 40, IB acceptance rates are significantly higher – see Carnegie Mellon University example below.  Of course, the quality of the IB coursework matters (6/7 or 7/7). One student client said that she got a $30,000 bonus in scholarships (over the $100,000 she had already received) when SMU, the school she was interested in, came to realize that she was an IB graduate. Another got into Boston University on a full scholarship, applying from India.

The IB website allows you to search for IB schools in your area by using various filters. This link searches for Texas IB schools that offer the IB Diploma program but are public (so, no tuition fee).

Texas law requires that every IB diploma holder whose IB test scores are 4 and above will be granted a minimum of 24 college credit hours at public colleges in Texas (equivalent to 8 AP classes).  This is another big plus of the IB program.

So who is IB for? The IB program is known for its stress on deliberative thinking, so someone who likes to discuss, analyze and write well is a good fit. The required 4,000- word essay, on which students spend upwards of two months to write, is almost like a college thesis where students have to "defend" what they write. IB is also good for students who have an international flair. Most 11th and 12th grade IB students travel for several days to a foreign country taking in its culture. Students have to pay for their travels but most report that they make strong friendships during their time away from school.

The College Board's AP program, which is largely exam-based, is an excellent competitor to IB. Students in the AP stream have far more choices (34 courses are offered by the College Board), and for those students interested in doing theses-like research projects, the College Board now offers the AP Capstone program. Launched in 2016 with the approval of over 250 colleges including the elite institutions, over 2,500 students worldwide graduated with an AP Capstone Diploma in 2016. Several North Texas ISDs offer Capstone, including Frisco, Grapevine, Colleyville, Ft. Worth, Irving, and Flower Mound.

What are the differences between the Advanced Placement program and the International Baccalaureate program?

[Hurst-Euless-Bedford (HEB) ISD was one of the first schools in North Texas to set up a dedicated IB World School as part of its Advanced Academics program. We thank them for the following content].

Both programs are weighted, college-level in nature, and may earn students college credit, depending on university policies.

Advanced Placement: Advanced, fast-paced, and more complex content; no application process but recommended criteria to qualify; students may choose from among a menu of advanced courses in grades 10-12; exams scored and recognized nationally; students expected to take AP exams; AP score comes from one end-of-course test.

International Baccalaureate: Most rigorous, comprehensive secondary program for 11th and 12th graders in the world; time management and self-motivation required; application process; students required to take exams in 6 specific areas of study; students become aware of world issues; much emphasis on independent, compassionate, critical thinking; independent research project; 150 service hours; exams scored and recognized internationally; required internal assessments involving creativity, writing, group projects; IB score comes from final exam plus various internal assessments; students may qualify for International Baccalaureate diploma as well as high school diploma. An IB Diploma recipient who has completed the diploma requirements and has earned scores of at least 4 receives 24 hours of credit at any state university in Texas.

For the class of 2020, the top 10 students in each HEB high school, Bell and Trinity, graduated from each school's respective IB World School.

How easy is it to gain admission to a public school's IB program ?

The answer depends upon supply and demand. At Plano and Frisco ISDs, for example, there are so many more applicants than spots, so the districts resort to a lottery. Like all districts, Frisco conducts a student-parent seminar about its IB program - click here for a detailed presentation. 

At other districts, such as Allen and HEB ISDs, strict qualifying criteria exist but most students who qualify gain admission. In all school districts, the IB program is generally marketed as a jewel of their advanced academics offerings.

The choice between IB and AP should be largely left to the student. There are pros and cons for both choices - so the key factor is to make the student aware of all the facts before a choice is made.

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