Advanced Placement? International Baccalaureate? Ask some students about these programs, and you're likely to draw a blank.
Take Florence Varodayan. She'd heard very little about the Advanced Placement (AP) program before going to St. Clement's School in Toronto. But after taking it in her senior high school years, she realized the advantage it gave her.
"The program gave me an opportunity to further explore courses that I was already interested in, and challenge myself in areas I never studied before," she says. "The workload was manageable, but challenging."
And when she started at the prestigious University of Pennsylvania last fall, she was able to bypass three chemistry courses, the entire freshman chemistry program.
The AP and International Baccalaureate (IB) programs provide students with a more rigorous, in-depth education from kindergarten through to the end of high school (although not all schools offer the programs at all levels) and are often a way for students to earn advanced standing at university.
At the secondary level, senior students take university-level courses (there are 34 in total) in areas offered by their school and taught by their regular teachers, who have been trained. Classes may be separate or integrated with the regular curriculum, although AP students' assignments are much more in-depth. Students write exams at the end of each course.
"It's a way of enriching the present curriculum for students who are capable of going beyond the curriculum," says Lynda Robinson, associate director of AP Canada. Interest in AP has boomed at St. Clement's, which now boasts the fastest-growing such program in Canada. About 350 exams were written in the spring of 2004 in 16 subject areas.
"AP is no more and no less than an exam . . . but the exam validates the fact that they have stretched themselves and worked beyond the present high school curriculum," Robinson says.
With high enough exam marks, AP students can earn credits for university or some sort of advanced standing - some even bypass their first year entirely.
This was the whole point of the AP program when post-secondary institutions, through the College Board, began it decades ago: They wanted to entice more students to study at the post-secondary level, and to make sure they were better prepared for the rigours of a university education.
The AP credits are accepted by all but two universities in Canada - Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, and McMaster University in Hamilton (although both are in the process of signing on) - and by many universities worldwide.
George Ewonus, director of the AP program in Canada, says parents shouldn't assume it's only for gifted children. "It's for students who love learning and love university," he says.
"In high school, the student is excited about learning, and it keeps them challenged and keen" about school at an age where that's sometimes difficult. "And when they get to university, they basically rock."
AP is now available at 425 private and public schools across Canada, and in 14,000 schools globally.
Sabrina Pavri, a former student at St. Clement's who is now at Johns Hopkins University, knew by Grade 11 she would probably end up in the United States for post-secondary studies. What appealed to her, and her parents, about the program, was that it would give her the chance to skip most first semester classes.
She says the AP credits, particulary in math, "covered more material in more depth" and in the sciences labs were a much bigger part of the curriculum.
In the end, she entered Johns Hopkins a semester and a half ahead - majoring in biomedical engineering, with a minor in economics - and chose "to lighten up my load first semester so I could adjust to college without being afraid my grades would suffer."
view our list of private schools offering advanced placement.
The International Baccalaureate (IB) program gives students a chance to learn challenging material that is accepted by schools around the world. It was initially for students whose families were on the move around the globe, so that they could move from school to school - and eventually university - with ease, and with recognized credentials.
Today, it gives students that same advantage while providing an education with a global perspective. The program is now run in more than 1,200 schools in 105 countries.
The IB program encompasses the entire curriculum, and students write exams that are graded by international standards, and not by their teachers. Student work is also a strong portion of assessments, and senior students write the equivalent of a thesis, or a 4,000-word project. All subjects develop students' thinking in several ways. Even the science classes, for example, involve written essays.
Bob Poole, director of the Vancouver office of the North American IB Program, says Canada is the largest participant on a per capita basis, which he attributes to the country's sense of multiculturalism.
He says because student work is assessed based on strict international criteria, universities know grade inflation is not an issue. And whereas in mainstream schools students are marked according to normal distribution of marks on a curve, that doesn't exist in IB.
"If a student meets each standard, they get so many marks. In theory all students could achieve at the highest level although in reality not all do."
For Nicole Ross, the IB program at Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School was appealing because it is a whole program of study, rather than the individual courses students take under the AP program.
"I wanted to do AP originally," says the Calgary native who founded the IB student society, a worldwide organization, two years ago. "But I chose IB because it's more well-rounded."
In particular, she liked the international focus. Ross, who is entering her second year majoring in life science at Queens University, is taking third-year courses because of the advanced standing the IB program gave her when applying to post-secondary institutions.
While the purpose of the IB program isn't to give students advanced standing, many universities worldwide recognize the hard work these students have done to earn their IB diploma.
We offer a list of private schools with IB programs.
Elementary school programs
Both AP and IB offer programs for students in the elementary and middle school years, but without the year-end exams. And unlike the secondary program, all students in a school will be enrolled.
Irene Davy is director of Sunnybrook School in Toronto and chair of the primary-years program for the International Baccalaureate Organization. "We were looking for a vehicle to promote school change and renewal and bring the program into the 21st century, and in our search we found the IB program the best to do that," she says.
All 140 students in the school take part, and Davy says the school teaches the curriculum in a trans-discipline way.
"Rather than teach science, social studies or the language arts completely separate, we do six units a year that form the central discipline...so if the central idea addresses Renaissance arts, that encompasses arts and history, and also geography" because of the relationship to Italy. As well, both teachers and students work much more collaboratively, she says.
AP is available from primary school to the end of high school. Balmoral Hall, an independent school in Winnipeg, offers AP in middle school as well as in high school.
"In middle school, it's open to all students. The pre-AP goes from Grades 6 to 10, and they don't take the AP program until Grades 11 or 12," says Jackie Copp, head of academics. For the pre-AP years, the work is embedded into the regular curriculum, she adds.
As to why the school decided to offer it: "It's inclusive," she says, "It's inquiry-based learning and requires critical-based thinking. Students learn research skills ... they learn to ask questions."
In general, at that level, students examine topics more critically than under the regular curriculum.
"One of the units students did was folk tales. So when you look at folk tales, you look at them from various different angles. You look at the kind of concepts that have developed through folk takes, and the values and traditions that come out of folk tales. It extends from language arts to history to tradition and values."
The difference in the pre-AP program, as in the AP program for senior high school students, is the depth of the work. "Students think in many more directions than they would normally," she says. Post-secondary advantages.
Advanced Placement provides exactly that - advanced standing in university programs when students earn high enough marks.
For the son of the Canadian AP director, that's exactly what the program did.
"My son basically skipped first year" at Simon Fraser University, George Ewonus says. "He went into second year, into smaller classes and was able to do a double honours degree."
Other students opt to take the first year of university anyway, but can take classes they might not otherwise have had time for, or can ease their way into a double major.
The IB program was not intended to provide students with any advanced standing in post-secondary institutions, although if students' marks are high enough the university may exempt them from certain work within a course or from a course itself, says Bob Poole, director of the Vancouver office of the IB program in North America.
The cost of the AP program is built into tuition, although at the secondary level there is an $82 (US) charge per exam. Although Ewonus points out that if a student is going to get advanced standing at university and avoid some tuition fees there, "it's very cost-effective." "That's not the main reason for it," he says, but it is an added bonus. There are no other yearly costs to the school, other than exams.
As for the IB program, Poole says schools themselves pay a yearly subscription, plus the cost of student exams. Sometimes those are reflected in tuition fees, or students pay it outright.