Liberal Education

On the International Baccalaureate Curriculum and US Higher Education: Reflections and Review, or "To IB or not to IB?"

The International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Program, with its complex mix of two-tiered courses and other components, continues to perplex American higher education. Yet the program has also continued to grow and exert pressure on American higher education, specifically on college and university admissions, by producing outstanding students who are well prepared for college-level work and who seek credit on a par with that awarded for participation in the Advanced Placement (AP) program. Some of these IB students might nurse a bit of a grudge, and I see their point: why don’t colleges and universities award credit as generously for IB as they do for AP? It’s a fair question.

Is the International Baccalaureate diploma just some strange beast, a chimera of sorts, like a griffin or centaur, an exotic hybrid, a bizarre coupling, of foreign high school curricula (e.g., the German Abitur and French baccalaureate)? Is it a creature, if not mythological, then most definitely European and international? Isn’t it, strictly speaking, at home nowhere? It seems to thrive orchid-like (or kudzu-like?) in the hothouse multicultural atmosphere of international schools—it is based in Switzerland, after all. It has only slowly established itself within American secondary education.

At first glance, the IB curriculum is indeed a strange animal. Compared to the more straightforward AP curriculum of one-year courses with exams graded on a 1–5 scale, the IB program offers a mix of one-year (standard level) and two-year (higher level) courses, with exams graded on a 1–7 scale, along with three additional components that ensure the capacity for sustained inquiry (the extended essay), a depth of metacognition or philosophical reflection (the Theory of Knowledge seminar), and a connection to the world (the community, action, service project). In other words, the IB program provides an integrated curriculum that is far greater than the sum of its parts but that, for this very reason, is less readily quantifiable in terms of college credit.

All components of the IB curriculum are writing intensive and get graded outside of the school, and often outside of the country, by international reviewers or examiners. Even the exams for a given course are proctored not by the course instructor, but by other teachers who are dubbed—just to add strangeness—invigilators. The organization of the curriculum is complex, rigorous, and broadly based in an international scope of inquiry. Students receive specific course scores as well as an overall score that includes the three additional components. The IB diploma requires an overall score of 24 out of the possible 45 points. Like much grading outside the United States, inflation is not the rule; for example, only 7 percent of students get the highest exam score of 7. In the IB program, American students are graded by competitive and exacting international standards.

But what is this complex curriculum worth in American higher education? What’s the exchange rate, so to speak, of this foreign educational currency?

Valuing the IB diploma

Despite a steady increase in the number of schools participating in the IB program, the IB diploma remains for many individuals and institutions in the United States an unfamiliar currency with an uncertain value—to the detriment of IB students entering college in the United States, whether they are American or international students. Yet at the same time, the IB program has emerged as a very strong indicator of success in college, due in part to its heavy emphasis on writing and oral presentation. The extended essay, the Theory of Knowledge seminar, and the community, action, service project help prepare students for prolonged performance or inquiry—or, in a word, research, which counts in higher education as a “high-impact educational practice” in terms of its effect on student performance and retention. In fact, as John Young, head of research at the International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO), noted at the IBO’s 2015 Higher Education Symposium, first-year retention of IB students in US higher education is 98 percent, versus the national average of 77 percent, and IB students are more likely to complete their degrees (79 percent versus 39 percent in four years, and 83 percent versus 56 percent in six years).1

Yet inertia, or the accumulated force of momentum holding an object (or policy) in place—i.e., the pressure to do nothing—will continue to govern the reception of IB at a given institution until circumstances change or reach a critical turning point. That would entail, basically, a local revolution in thinking or a revaluation of the currency. Changing the status quo would require extensive and immersive labor to establish course credit equivalencies.

Over the past several years, my own university has modified its policy toward the IB program. We recently completed a protracted departmental review of the IB curriculum, with each department determining course credit equivalencies based on the IB’s curricular content as it relates to the department’s own area of study. Such a review generates both grumbling (a bit) and good-faith engagement (a lot), and it represents an elevated instance of conscientious labor on behalf of incoming students. But how many colleges and universities have actually conducted such a review of the content of the IB curriculum?

Colleges and universities need to recognize that the trend toward IB is gaining momentum as more US school districts are adopting the curriculum, even though doing so requires a substantial commitment of resources, and as more students from IB schools abroad, both US citizens and others (visiting F1-visa students), choose to attend colleges and universities in the United States. These two trends converge, making fairness toward IB a vital interest for US higher education. At the IBO’s 2015 Higher Education Symposium, Enis Dogan, associate director of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, elucidated the affinity of Common Core State Standards with the IB curriculum in its “greater focus on fewer topics”; coherence and rigor, in terms of conceptual understanding; procedural skills and fluency; and on reasoning (logical) and explaining (oral), with greater complexity of texts and the use of multiple sources (not opinion or personal experience) in an argument. In fact, the IB program inspired to some extent the Common Core standards; Dogan noted succinctly that “IB was ahead of the game.” With a verve and humor perhaps atypical of statisticians, he offered the quasi-Cartesian slogan for Common Core and IB together: “I can explain what I think, therefore I am.” He also cited the international-mindedness of IB as a distinguishing feature between the two.2

IB and AP: Credits and equivalencies

Some signs of the increased pressure on the entrenched inertia have begun to emerge. The Washington Post’s higher education correspondent, Jay Mathews, has devoted numerous columns to the IB curriculum and its transformative effect on schools and individuals. His ongoing inquiry into the value (relative and absolute) of the IB curriculum culminated in Supertest: How the International Baccalaureate Can Strengthen Our Schools, a book-length study, coauthored by Ian Hill, that contains illuminating perspectives on, and anecdotal illustrations of, the IB in practice.3

Moreover, as Education Week’s Caralee Adams has observed, “state lawmakers are entering the debate by passing laws requiring public colleges and universities to set uniform policies for recognizing AP, IB and dual-enrollment courses that students take in high school.”4 In 1995, the state of Texas began to offer a variety of financial incentives through the Texas Advanced Placement/International Baccalaureate Incentive Program. In 2010, the Virginia General Assembly enacted legislation on course credit for IB and AP, amending the Code of Virginia to mandate that public institutions “implement policies” to award entering first-year college students course credit for IB and AP; that the equivalencies get stated specifically (i.e., “minimum required scores on examinations”); that the specific course credit or other requirements also get stated for “completing the diploma program”; and, that each public institution’s policy granting credit for IB courses “be comparable [ . . . ] for granting course credit for Advanced Placement courses.”5 Such a mandate overturns the de facto depreciation of IB. In this case, the Virginia legislature was ahead of higher education itself.

Why have legislatures had to step in to get higher education institutions to address the equivalencies of AP and IB? And what about states where there is no legislative mandate to do so?

In Virginia, the legislative mandate establishes parity between two main sources of transfer credits (AP and IB) that do not come from another college or university. The effect is that each public institution in the state had to conduct its own evaluation of the IB curriculum, as it had probably already done long since with AP, in order to establish the particular equivalencies of IB to its own courses. These reviews then have to address, in particular, the difference between IB standard-level courses (one year of advanced work) and IB higher-level courses (two years of advanced work) in relation to one-year AP courses. As a result, many institutions in Virginia, such as James Madison University and George Mason University, have now posted detailed equivalencies for IB scores (at both standard and higher levels). Many other institutions there and elsewhere have likewise conducted reviews and established equivalencies. Far more commonly, however, some nominal credit is awarded only for higher-level courses and without the identification of specific course equivalencies. This is most likely a sign that no departmental review has taken place and that convenience has trumped conscience.

The most selective colleges and universities avoid the issue altogether, since they typically do not award any college credit for IB or AP courses and, instead, simply indicate that such challenging curricula get taken into account in the admissions process. The policy of these most selective institutions resembles, by plan or accident, the situation in the United Kingdom, where the IB program is formally recognized as one of only several outcomes or scores (based on the whole curriculum, not a single test like SAT or ACT) for admission into the more strictly hierarchical (or vertically integrated) ranking of universities, with Oxford and Cambridge at the top. For students seeking to study in the UK, their admission hinges on their overall scores, without all the individual essays and recommendations of the overwrought US college admissions process. In fact, UK students are limited to five applications with one essay for the lot. The single IB score has a very different weight and value there, and recognition is counted differently than in the more holistic (or maddening) admissions process in the United States.

Of course, many highly selective US colleges and universities have curricula based on 4-credit courses—a student only takes 31 courses for the degree, based on 124 credits. At institutions with 3-credit courses, by contrast, a student takes at least 41 courses for the degree, which means more content coverage, more faculty contact (more opportunities to be inspired!), and far greater possibilities to add a second major or a minor. In other words, students at institutions with 3-credit courses can bring in up to 30 credits (through IB, AP, or other colleges) and still take the same number of courses that students at institutions with 4-credit courses take. The incoming credits for AP or IB allow students to advance in their majors, add additional majors or minors, or just have a great deal more flexibility for electives beyond the core or distribution requirements. Credit for AP or IB opens possibilities for students to avoid duplicate work and to advance more quickly in more areas of interest—or to graduate early, if that’s their wish or need.

Problematic nomenclature

Some colleges and universities have, in fact, also begun to award credit for the yearlong standard-level IB courses, aligning them with credit for yearlong AP courses. That makes sense and is long overdue, but for some it also crosses a line. Why? Because many, if not most, colleges and universities have in the past simply imitated each other in adopting the policy and attitude that “no credit will be awarded for standard-level courses” (with slight variations in wording). No further explanation seemed necessary; literally, no one gave it any further thought.

Again, why? Well, it’s an easy and convenient dictum, and sounds like a high principle. But it also assumes that the term “standard” refers to some level of instruction aimed only at basic competencies, which is not at all the case. That dismissive perception is skewed and inaccurate, but to award credit for standard-level IB courses would require a profound change of policy. Though it might seem implausible, I have come to the conclusion that, in the absence of an actual faculty review of course content, the reluctance to correlate the transfer credit between AP and IB often hinges simply on nomenclature and inertia.

For its part, the IBO declines to modify its terminology or adopt a phrase more reassuring to American audiences. At the 2015 Higher Education Symposium, I asked about the term “standard,” since for Americans it suggests the car model without air conditioning or other features, without distinction. The chief external academic relations officer for the IBO, John Bader, acknowledged the problem of terminology and perception in different countries, and indicated that there was “open debate” in the IB community about this. But with respect to that specific term, he said, “it’s not about to change,” though “change is possible.” His exquisitely diplomatic response reflects the fact that IB is established in over 140 countries, and any such change would be like “threading 140 needles” at once. In a separate follow-up conversation, he added neatly: “we’ve tried to avoid pleasing one system over another.” That’s a perfectly defensible position, but I had to ask.

Nonetheless, in the United States, IB’s standard level would translate more accurately as advanced or honors or accelerated college-track level. For IB diploma candidates worldwide, the United States is by far the favorite destination for their university education (roughly 50 percent). Perhaps an asterisk could be added somewhere to explain the term. Or maybe the best solution is to make institutions and individuals in the United States more aware of the IB curriculum and students in their relations to US standards and practices.

Rather than to meet some lowly norm, students with advanced aptitudes and ambitions take IB courses to challenge themselves at a high level. The IB’s standard level comprises one full year of such high-level instruction—just like Advanced Placement, though more writing intensive. A year of IB standard-level coursework generally corresponds to a year of AP, though the approaches are different. To take the IB exam in a given area, one has to have completed the yearlong course, for example, which is not true of AP. IB does not use multiple-choice exams and is writing intensive, often with oral presentations or performances as well. The IB courses often have less topical breadth, but require more analytical or conceptual synthesis, which teaches active critical thinking, rather than just passive recognition.

In general, one year of AP instruction correlates to one year of IB standard-level instruction. In 2007, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute issued Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate: Do They Deserve Gold Star Status?, a report in which leading educators review AP and IB courses and exams side-by-side in four representative areas (biology, math, literature, and history) with a discursive evaluation and an overall letter grade.6 In two cases, IB standard-level courses were graded higher than the corresponding AP courses; in two cases, IB standard-level courses were given the same grade as the corresponding AP courses, and differences of breadth or depth of content or of accentuation and organization were duly noted. The report acknowledges, but does not address, the added benefits of the second-year content of the IB higher-level courses.


There is clear evidence of IB’s worthiness of college credit and its value as preparation for advanced college-level work. In light of the increased presence of IB students in American higher education and the quality of their preparation (even without the full IB diploma), along with the recognition of IB’s educational merit by various independent authorities, US institutions of higher learning should review their policies on transfer credit and make sure that incoming IB scores receive course credit on a par with AP courses. That course credit should be determined by a review within a given department based on the actual content of the IB program in relation to existing courses. A full departmental review of IB is the only way to ensure parity and fairness to incoming IB students. Such an IB review might then require a further review of the standing AP equivalencies, since the correlation of AP courses to both IB higher-level courses and, especially, IB standard-level courses might have to be determined anew. In this very concrete way, colleges and universities in the United States could demonstrate their openness to an international educational community and serve both US and international students and their own missions by showing a commitment to high standards and global learning.


1. John W. Young, paper presented at the International Baccalaureate Organization’s Higher Education Symposium (Erasmus University, Rotterdam, Netherlands, October 2015).

2. Enis Dogan, paper presented at the International Baccalaureate Organization’s Higher Education Symposium (Erasmus University, Rotterdam, Netherlands, October 2015).

3. Jay Mathews and Ian Hill, Supertest: How the International Baccalaureate Can Strengthen Our Schools (Chicago: Open Court, 2005).

4. Caralee J. Adams, “Colleges Vary on Credit for AP, IB, Dual Classes,” Education Week, December 9, 2014,

5. See Virginia Acts of Assembly, “An Act to Amend the Code of Virginia by Adding a Section Numbered 23 - 9.2:3.8, Relating to Course Credit for International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement Courses,” April 11, 2010,

6. Sheila Byrd, Lucien Ellington, Paul Gross, Carol Jago, and Sheldon Stern, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate: Do They Deserve Gold Star Status? (Washington, DC: Thomas B. Fordham Institute, 2007).

Neil H. Donahue is vice provost for undergraduate academic affairs and professor of German and Comparative Literature at Hofstra University.

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