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Why IB Programs are Gaining Traction across the United States

By Colin Kavanaugh

Over the previous decade, the International Baccalaureate (IB) has rapidly expanded in public schools across the United States and the world at-large. The instructional program is designed for students at all grade-levels across the world and has extended to more than 3,300 schools and 141 countries since its debut in 1968―more than one-third of which operate in schools in the United States.

In the United States, the IB Diploma Program enjoys the greatest interest nationwide as an alternative to the Advanced Placement (AP) program, yet research showing the benefits of IB programs is insubstantial at best. While existing research shows that IB programs boost student performance, most research on the topic is limited to the high school Diploma Program and is supported by the IB Organization itself.

The research indicates a strong correlation between IB participation during one’s high school years and initial postgraduate success at colleges and universities. This relationship should be interpreted carefully, however, as studies consistently find that high-achieving students are naturally more likely to enroll in the program and amplify their success.

Research presented in a McKinsey study found that International Baccalaureate programs had a powerful effect on the achievement of low-income and minority students; it also found that these students access IB programs at a lower rate than their Caucasian and upper-income peers. According to International Baccalaureate, the IB reaches fewer under-represented students in the Diploma Program “due to its relatively small scale, the lack of academic preparation of many high-need students for the level of rigor in the Diploma Program, and the perceptions held by schools and students that the program is for the “elite’ students.”

IB program students tend to perform better in national standardized testing, involve themselves in international study beyond the secondary level, and maintain involvement in community service activities, yet the few independent studies available are not sufficient to link the IB program to these achievements. In order to assess whether the IB program is worthwhile for your school district, consider the following:

Compare the cost of the program in relation to the alternatives.

  • The AP program charges $87 per exam, with a $22 rebate for low-income students. With six (6) courses, the total is $522. However, no district-wide fee is charged from the College Board to administer the exams.
  • The IB program costs are relative to the district in which the exams are administered, though fees are generally lower than the AP. However, the IBO requires an annual school membership fee of $10,400.

Weigh the benefits and burdens for advanced students.

  • Most competitive colleges, which attract the applications of many IB diploma candidates, encourage a challenging course load, extensive public service, and evidence of critical thinking. The IB program incorporates a broad agenda of service and in-depth research experience, while the AP program is focused on advanced coursework.
  • In one survey from the IBO, alumni of the IB program note the value of the program’s academic rigor and holistic experience in directing them toward their chosen careers.
  • Respondents ranked the non-class components of the program―like the service portfolio, the extended essay, and the epistemology course―as the most superfluous. Since these structural criteria are the key differences between the IB and AP programs, their value to students who intended to study in North America was questionable.

Ultimately, the IB program has gained significant favor among school districts in recent decades, particularly in North America, and its reception among college admissions officers has also improved significantly. While the IB program does carry additional amounts of work and stress for ambitious students, the program allows students to adjust to postsecondary coursework with greater ease and higher levels of success.