International Baccalaureate: Notes From the Trenches, Part 6; College Credit?

My first university professor taught a course on Medieval Europe while wearing house slippers and nursing a tall mug of Postum. He did this while standing in front of the blaze we students had built in the fireplace of the former drinking hall of a converted, ochre yellow farm manor – the Gasthof Zieglau – in a village called Elsbethen-bei-Salzburg. Yes, this was Austria, so as you correctly suspected, outside the lecture hall windows there were actually goats grazing. . . and lonely goatherds lazing.

Gasthof Zieglau, my first university

Gasthof Zieglau, my first university

This professor (we called him Herr Doktor Professor) ate all of his meals with his 35 students. But to me, his only 14-year-old pupil, he gave a weekly allowance, daily personal advice, and a nightly bedtime kiss. He was my Dad.

Herr Doktor in Madrid

Herr Doktor Professor Dalton in Madrid

On three occasions during my upbringing, my Dad, a university professor, and my mother, a university instructor, and three or four other faculty members, led “Semesters Abroad” in Europe. These were concentrated foreign study experiences where Herr und Frau Doktor Professor’s children got the perks of not only tagging along on travels, but also taking college courses. Maybe not surprisingly, I did as well or better in those college courses than in most I took in high school. At least I liked them more.  I was challenged, respected, turned on to learning, free from the math gulag, and I racked up both high school and college credit.

Bohemian scholars in the Gasthof's Kaminzimmer

Bohemian scholars in the Gasthof’s Kaminzimmer

When students of the full IB diploma complete two full years of rigorous pre-university training –no house slippers, goats or paternal kisses – it is not always guaranteed that they will receive university credit. I first became aware of this over 15 years ago, when I met a family in France whose daughter, an excellent IB student, had been given a generous scholarship to large private university in the US.  After a whole year battling with admissions and administrators, she had still not been given college credit for any of her three Higher Level courses (in which she’d done exceptionally well.) Her Standard Level IB courses were not even taken into consideration for college credit.

Faculty and family sharing dinner at the Gasthof

Faculty and family sharing dinner at the Gasthof

As explanation: full IB students are required to take six two-year courses, three of which are Higher Level; three of which are Standard Level.  Our Dalton, as a real-life example, is currently in Higher Level History, English and French, and Standard Level Math, Biology and German courses. For an idea of the rigor of a Standard Level course, his last German assignment was to write, (in German, obviously) a researched essay on the United Nations High Council for Refugees.  Standard stuff. In addition to those HL and SL courses, Full IB diploma candidates take a TOK  or Theory of Knowledge course, write a research / TOK paper, complete an EE  or Extended Essay of 4,000 words, and show initiative in doing substantial (hours upon hours of) Creative, Active and Service projects, which must be of an approved nature and then catalogued in journal form. There are also frequent IA’s, or Internal Assessments, similar to midterm exams.

Our studies included copious travel. My first visit to London. . .

Our studies included copious travel. My first visit to London

Taking all of that into consideration, you can understand how aggravating it was for this full IB student from France to have to fight for university credit for her HL IB courses (let alone her SL IB courses.) Worse, though, was learning that her roommates, who had graduated from monolingual schools, were given without as much as a twitch of an eyelid college credit for any and all of their AP courses.

First visit to the Loire Valley

First visit to the Loire Valley

And are these bizarre, isolated scenarios? Apparently not, if you read this, from which the following quote is pulled:

Lisa McLoughlin … is a parent, real estate broker and journalist who is an acidic opponent of the IB program at Locust Valley High School on Long Island’s North Shore, and of IB in general. She has become, in my view, the liveliest and most intelligent IB critic in the country. I devoted a chapter to her in my 2005 book, “Supertest: How the International Baccalaureate Can Strengthen Our Schools.” We still communicate often by e-mail. Jay Matthews

Any program like IB that is important for our children needs thoughtful hecklers like McLoughlin. She told the other Admissions 101 participants that schools should junk IB in favor of AP because it costs more than AP and does not deliver college credits with the certainty and consistency of AP. Other discussion group members said their experience with IB convinced them that it was more challenging and deeper than AP. One well-informed discussant, OscarWilde, who appears to be a college professor, quoted in detail favorable assessments of IB students from several well-known colleges.

Discovering Renoir

Discovering Renoir

Or this:

Normally three of the IB program areas are studied at the “higher level,” which is considered equivalent to college work. Students typically must attain at least a score of 5 out of 7 points on an exam for a higher-level course to be eligible for college credit. Most colleges recognize the academic value provided by the rigors of the IB program, but each college has its own policies about granting credit for IB exams.

Or this:

Another consideration to keep in mind is that the more selective colleges often give college credit only for IB classes taken at the “Higher Level” (“HL” in IB lingo). IB students take three classes at that level and the rest at the Standard Level (“SL”). Some colleges give credit only for IB exam scores of 7 (the top); some for lower scores. Thus, even the most outstanding students may only get college credit in three areas, while AP students could end up with credit in many more subjects, depending on how many AP classes the student takes, how he fares on the exams, and what the college’s credit policy is. Some parents and students report that they have to jump through more hoops for IB credit than for AP credit, especially when students are not at the most selective colleges. In any case, once you start investigating AP and IB credit policies, you may feel like you need Cal Tech degree just to figure it all out. Each college seems to somehow manage to come up with an AP/IB credit-awarding system that is just a tad different than the next guy’s!

Or this:

The AP courses are accepted at virtually all U.S. colleges and universities, while the IB program has more limited acceptance within the U.S. but is growing in popularity.

Discovering Degas

Discovering Degas


I’ve kept a (sometimes twitching) eye on the patterns of university admissions across the US, and have been encouraged over the last decade to see that the IB, as it gains familiarity (if not yet out-and-out popularity) in US secondary schools, is becoming a known entity to college admissions personnel.  Whether this trend will continue, and whether those now completing full IB programs will benefit from such change is yet to be seen.

Leaving Gasthof Zieglau

Leaving Gasthof Zieglau

International Baccalaureate: Notes From the Trenches, Part 5; Weighted Grades

You’re reading a post by a high school drop out.

In a manner of speaking. I more or less stopped going to high school half way through my senior (final) year. I wasn’t a vagrant (I wasn’t a “flunky”) nor was I brilliant (a savant heading off to MIT on scholarship.) It’s just that I’d turned 16, and according to the basic requirements of my school, I was done anyway. So I took only one academic course (AP English) while spending the rest of my time involved in student government, (elected positions of leadership.) Busy with non-core courses until June, I then donned the synthetic gown, the shiny mortar board, and walked up to get my diploma. Easy.



What classes did I take to fill my time? Student government, symphony orchestra, special string ensembles, A Capella choir, debate, public speaking, released time for religious instruction and an hour-long lunch break. I spent much of my time in rehearsals for drama and musical productions. With other students, I traveled regularly and regionally for orchestra, theater and competitive speech competitions. I got “A’s.”

And I took Driver’s Education.  I got an “A” in that class by mastering parallel parking on a couple of acres adjacent to the school, a swath of asphalt decorated with fluorescent safety cones like oversized candy corn decorating a gray cake. Cruising that parking lot was like visiting an amusement park. This meant that at the same time I got that high school diploma,  I also got a newly-minted US driver’s license.  When I tell this to my non-American friends, they just can’t fathom it. They also squint at me, and nod at why I’m such a weak mathematician. 

do something

do something

In many places outside of the US, getting secondary education degrees, like getting driver’s licenses, is designed without much amusement (or fun) in mind. Instead, it’s the great sifter.  It’s designed to be rigorous, even ruinous.  Just ask the woman who stood in front of me in the line in Singapore where we were filing in to take the written exam to qualify for that country’s driver’s license.  “My sixth time,” she whispered while sweat shimmered on her forehead and she rocked on her heels a bit, arms clenched against her belly as if she was birthing an alien.

Or ask the South Korean, Polish, and Finnish high school-aged students profiled by journalist Amanda Ripley in her new book, The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way. (I will return to this book and the linked article in my upcoming posts. Thanks to Janina, one of our readers here, who sent me the link. Provocative reading!)

the smartes kids

This year, US colleges will receive more applicants than ever before. What’s more, these applicants will come from more diverse secondary schooling systems than any previous year. Some will probably come from South Korea, Poland and Finland. I get dizzy (and for a moment just the slightest bit anxious) learning about what other cultures deem as “best and bright,” and when I skim the statistics about other US college applicants.  Thank goodness I do so only for these posts on education; normally, I’m not a rabid follower of such graphs and predictors. I’m no way a Tiger Mom. In our home, whenever we speak the word “Ivy” it’s about leaves, not League. 

But my kids are heading to college. Two already have, two will yet. And the younger ones are facing an even more competitive college application scenario than the oldest two did, just 5 and 8 years ago. It is impossible to escape the roiling undercurrent of competition in today’s college entrance process, or the fact that the admissions process, complicated and unreliable as it is, depends primarily on numerical indicators to sift through the thousands of profiles piling up this very hour. Those numerical indicators seem to favor (who’s surprised by this?) numerical or quantitative skills!  Many colleges don’t even consider the written part of the SAT, a major disappointment for someone like our children, whose strengths (and who’s surprised by this?) lie in languages, critical thinking and verbal/written expression.

This all colors one’s GPA, of course. GPA is, for most if not all universities, the first numerical benchmark to determine a student’s ranking. But the problem with GPA is that while some post-secondary institutions have manpower and time to consider the nuances of such numbers, many do not. Certain classes, like instructors, like high schools, like countries – will produce widely varying grades. I pointed to this in my last post.  Not all these differences can be justly weighed.

Stop and think for just a moment: You and I know, while peacefully reading this post, that an “A” given for Driver’s Education (or student government or cheerleading) in an average US public high school is lightweight – featherweight – an easy “A”. We understand it’s nowhere on the same weight scale as a 7 (A+) given to a Full IB Diploma student in a HL (Higher Level) Chemistry course in a college prep school. The problem is that many colleges do not make the distinction between heavy, welter or featherweight.

(Should they first distinguish that driving or cheering not be part of any high school’s academic curriculum? That such grades not be included in the GPA in the first place?)

To simplify the process, college admissions personnel are looking first at the cumulative GPA and test scores.  A high number on either can be a foot-in the admissions door. When heavy (rigorous, college-level, mercilessly graded) courses combine for a lower GPA, that can mean the admissions door is summarily closed. The fundamental problem, I believe, is that weighting grades (or courses or instructors or overall high school or even country reputations) is too nuanced and subjective an undertaking to be carried out fairly. 

So what can one do? The response I hear often is to counterbalance a “weak” (below 3.5) GPA by building a portfolio of leadership and extra-curricular strengths. Design solar powered homes in Costa Rica, they say. Start a soup kitchen in Detroit. Run for office. Discover a planet. Whatever you do, you’d better stockpile your extra-curriculars. Theater. Speech. Orchestra. Cheerleading. Driver’s Ed.

And you see we’re back where we started.

The International Baccalaureate, Notes From Trenches Part 4: Grades

KotterRight about when the ’70’s were warping into the ’80’s, when TV shows like “Welcome Back Kotter” and “Happy Days” made up the popularized school template, and when, according to observers of the US educational system, grade inflation was just puffing its bellows, sending the hot air balloon of “I’m Okay, You’re Okay” into the clouds, I graduated from a US public high school. I’d just turned 16. I had solid enough grades. And, hello world? I was done. 

happy days

But was I educated?

On paper I was. I had a GPA that merited entrance into a solid university. But what did that GPA mean? From the broad palette of course offerings in my school, I’d chosen classes in which I knew I could get an “A.”  Symphony orchestra. Student government. String ensemble. Debate and competitive speech. Theater Arts. And a favorite: Driver’s Education. In these classes, an “A” was doled out to all the squarely solid students, folks who showed up and did the course requirements. A “C” was the same as failing.  A “B” was saggy.  Given that I showed up, I didn’t sag too much.

I passed high school without much sweat. I could have taken more challenging classes, but one AP English course was enough for me. The system didn’t demand that I be extra academically inclined or even terribly hard-working. It was designed, I’ve come to conclude, to give me choices, including the choice to pass. As such, it meant I could pick courses that matched my natural gifts, and I’m quite sure I rode the crest of grade inflation. Part of the logic of that early grade inflation, as I have come to understand it, is that the US had lots of babies from our post WWII Baby Boom, and we had to get them through the system. Scholastic standards softened then sunk. People like 16-year-old me waltzed through the diploma line, but not necessarily with the world’s most rigorous education under our belts.


I knew kids in high school who, when they didn’t get an “A,” (the top grade in the US system) plea-bargained. They would actually approach an instructor. With cookies. And negotiate.  I didn’t do this as a high school student (I lacked the nerve, not to mention the baking skills) but I experienced this on the other side of the equation when I taught on the university level and later instructed at a college on the eastern seaboard of the US.  Students came to me every week, it seemed, contesting grades. Their pluck (and illogic) struck me. In European universities, as I’d witnessed it, professors rarely if ever even spoke privately with students. Contesting grades? There were none to contest: you received exactly one for the course, and that was for the final exam. Negotiations, like addressing a professor without her or his full title (Herr Doktor Professor Spinkelfürstenmeyer)? Never.



Now the US finds itself in a different phase from that of Vinnie Barbarino and Richie Cunningham. With the “globalization” of the world (the speed and ubiquity of technology and concurrent political shifts) and with the precipitous economic rise of the four Asian tigers (Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea) plus the emergence of the fifth Tiger (India), the worldwide market is a far more competitive place. US high school students are not only competing for slots in college, they are in a race against the whole developed world for jobs.

What’s happening now in the US high school system in terms of rigor/ease? In terms of grading procedures and weighting of performance? In terms of that (darned almighty) GPA? In a 21st century which has some kids white-knuckling it through high school, others groveling for college admissions, many fearful that there will not be employment at the end of the tunnel of formal education, is there another kind of grade inflation going on?

Two recent conversations come to mind.

The first, was last week’s lunch with Irina and one of Irina’s three adult sons, Nicolas. Irina is Bulgarian-Czech-Russian-Swiss, and all her sons are a handsome composite of the same, with a big dose of English and Italian thrown in. The younger two boys attended, for some time, an American international school in Paris, which is where I first met them all. Having known a broad variety of educational approaches, they are able to make comparisons.  Irina, for instance, at 18 and freshly arrived from eastern Europe, enrolled at the Sorbonne.  Later in life, both she and her oldest son instructed in international schools.

ib diploma

“This full IB track is so intense,” I launched in, hoping for sympathy, “and it feels more intense here, I’m finding, in a Swiss context than it has been elsewhere like France and Germany. There’s no breathing room at all. And not quite as much support as I’ve seen elsewhere.”

“But that makes total sense,” Nico said, “It’s Swiss. You’re supposed to manage solo. But you want to see really ruthless? Try the Swiss Maturité,” Nico went on. “Twelve killer classes. High level proficiency in three languages. Loads and loads of memorization. That’s why it takes a whole extra year beyond the IB to even finish the basic coursework of the infamous Maturité.”

At which point I didn’t bother describing to them my own high school days.

Another talk was just this morning with Valérie.  Raised and schooled in central Europe (Holland, Luxembourg, Switzerland) and in Vermont, she is now a teacher at the international bilingual school where my two youngest are enrolled.

“I got to Vermont,” said Valérie as we strolled with her daughters around a local lake,  “and it looked just like here. Gorgeous. Pines. Mountains. All that nature. I thought, ‘No brainer, I can slip right in here.’ But I struggled at figuring out how things worked with grades in high school. Where I’d come from, a ‘C’ was a totally respectable grade. It meant you were faring well, meeting course expectations. Where I’d just been in central Europe, a B or an A [or their European equivalents] were rare, reserved for ‘extreme’ students. When I got a ‘C’ in one of my classes and didn’t totally flip out, it was my American classmates who flipped out. ‘You mean you’re okay with that?! A. . .a  ‘C’?'”


Irina, Nico and Valérie know that what merits a top grade in one system, country, or course won’t necessarily do the same in another. On the other hand, they also know that “hard” or “ruthless” or “overload” doesn’t always equate with a healthy education.  All of them, having experienced it, appreciated the sports, arts and leadership opportunities afforded by a system which, one could perhaps argue, can be comparatively “soft” on the “hard” subjects.

But let’s pretend we take identically “hard” courses and administer them as equally as possible. When it comes to grading procedures, they are subject to cultural influences as well. Here is another conversation, this time with my husband, based on research gleaned from the business world:

One measurement of corporate effectiveness relies on country-wide employee engagement surveys. You take the managers from individual countries (let’s say Mexico, Japan, the UK and the US) and ask them to “grade” a recent corporate initiative. From purely quantitative scoring (let’s say a 1-100 scale, with 100 being the high end) which country do you think tends to score highest on such surveys? Which lowest? Which in the top quartile? Which always toward the bottom?

History has shown that in these surveys, respondents from Mexico nearly always give the highest numerical scores. Qué bueno!



Japan nearly always rates at the very bottom. A 44% for the Japanese might be considered, in their eyes, generous, even complimentary.

In contrast, a 78% in Mexico would be considered a low or unsatisfactory score.

The UK is quite exigent, as is Japan. Interpreted, the British like the Japanese are not easily impressed, are temperate in their judgment, slow to score something off the charts. Reserved.

And the US always scores (wait for it) in the uppermost quartile. What could that mean? Does something in the water feed an inflated expression of satisfaction? Or do Americans by nature lean towards optimism, cheerleading, exuberance. Even faith?

ib globe

I’m not saying that either mentality is inherently bad or good. What I’m saying, (with caution, because I hate to paint in sweeping strokes) is that when you get a panel of  Japanese, British, Mexican and American teachers together, they might very well grade according to certain cultural norms. Some will give you a well-deserved C. Some, for the same work, will give you a well-deserved A.

And now. . . for my final “conversation” with Heather, one of my readers who has commented in a pervious thread here on the blog.  In her 7th year raising children as expatriates, and going through the IB, she notes some basic concerns I have felt:

One frustration we have is that my daughter is competing, on paper, with US students who might have the same GPA as she has, but don’t nearly have the same academic intensity. Some universities weight the more rigorous classes, some don’t. Yes, they want to see core classes on report cards, but comparing an IB SL* class with a US AP can be tricky. I have a niece in an AP English class in Utah. Her teacher sends her out for donuts at least once a week. Whenever she feels like it, she asks her teacher if she can skip to work on her student government job or to go home to nap. She gets an “A” in that class. How do you weigh that “A” against my IB HL* English daughter’s “A” with all the IA’s*, orals and World Lit papers? Some university admissions are sensitive to the differences between schools, but some are just looking at the numbers. What’s ironic is that she qualifies for the best universities in the UK, including Oxford, St. Andrews and Kings College University of London because of her predicted IB scores, but US universities don’t care about her predicted test scores! These are tricky things about the IB that international school students deal with that US based students don’t. 


What have your experiences been, if any, moving from school system to school system?

What does it take to be well-educated in today’s world? And what does a “hard” education have that a “soft” does not?

How has your own education differed from the education you are providing for your children?

What is your personal philosophy regarding “intelligence”? What is it? How does one gain/increase/apply it? What is its value?


The International Baccalaureate: Notes From the Trenches, Part 3, College Apps

ibThat high school senior of ours I mentioned in the last post, in addition to slaying the dragon of the full IB, is simultaneously in the throes of completing college applications. One or the other, IB or college apps, is a lot. The two at once is a recipe for nutso.  I know he’ll make it – we’ll all make it – and I can say so in good faith because with this, our third child, it’s my third time visiting the Land o’ College Applications.  Still, you’d think by now I’d have this college app thing down, well, to an app.

(I’ve checked. No such thing exists.)

If you’ve not yet done college applications with your child, you’ll want to listen carefully as I describe in a sentence or two what I could easily spend several posts discussing. It is here where essentially three qualifications bear sway: the accumulated grade point average (GPA), college entrance exam scores (SAT and ACT), and supplementary strengths. These are a strong personal essay, glimmering letters of recommendation, and extracurricular activities including awards of all sorts, i.e., your nomination for a Nobel or Pulitzer, or receiving either a Fields or Olympic Medal. Or getting both (or all four – hey, go for it!) is better. Anything helps.

college mortarboard

Combined, such quantifiers and qualifiers make up the filter for sorting students into schools where they will, 1) merit entrance, 2) be a positive contributor to that community, and 3) thrive. In theory at least, and more than any other factors, those GPA and college entrance exam numbers are supposed to effectively sort applicants with certain strengths (including academic capacity) into the appropriate universities.

Side note: you know as well as I do that standardized tests cannot describe the galaxy-wide breadth of differences in intelligence. And you know from reading this interview that while I value education and lifelong learning, and am a vocal advocate for education as a means of contributing to the welfare of humankind, I do not revere academic achievement for its own sake, meaning in isolation from moral training (including social responsibility) and emotional/spiritual well-being.  And I am wise to know that quantitative measurements not only cannot measure a human being’s worth and potential contribution, but might even distract us, if they become a fixation, from some of the greatest concerns.

Can make us unwell. Sick. Addicted. Even, in the extreme, morally and ethically corrupt. Ignorance and sloth breed a certain corruption. Myopic focus on external measures breeds another.

We’ll come back to that world of thought in future posts. Can hardly wait.



But for now, back to the IB.

Considering the rigor and depth of a program of its sort, you’d expect it would be of practical advantage for the young learner when considering colleges. But this is not necessarily the case.  Why? There are several reasons, and I’ll begin one here:

Grading procedures specifically during the junior year

When one applies for US universities, one normally begins the process of applying now, in the autumn of the first semester of one’s senior (or final) year of high school.  College and universities in the US will in turn respond to these apps by early winter.  The grades that “count” are from the junior year, since the first semester senior year grades come in late, sometimes too late to count for many US college applications.  While those senior grades are relatively important for US-bound students, they are clearly not as important as those junior grades.


Furthermore, many of our family’s high school seniors’ friends do something called Early Decision, which means they apply this month (November) to a single university, (not to four or six or more, as many high school students do) with the understanding that this is the only university they are hoping to attend. Their applications rests solely on a GPA gathered from their junior year. All eggs are in that precarious academic basket, so to speak. The kids know it. The college admissions gatekeepers know it.

The students who’ve done Early Decision find out by December if they are accepted. If they are not, they then begin the scramble for applying to a number of other schools, if perhaps a little bit late. Lots of stress during those holidays, I can tell you. And all that, by the way, while swinging away at the IB dragon.

dragon slayer

If applicants’ grades from their sophomore and junior (and not senior) years are used to prove their academic standing, what happens if a school espouses an IB system, which, as I’m learning can happen, is keenly attuned to European and UK schools? For European and UK universities, the senior – not junior – year grades are most relevant. And in order to motivate the students to up their scholastic game the final, or senior, year, teachers tend to grade harder (lower) in the junior year.

A US-bound student, then, could potentially end up with a lower overall GPA – could end up disadvantaged – with respect to his or her junior year grades, the ones US universities will look at most closely.  Consequently, he or she is submitting grades which might be among his or her lowest.

I have been part of an IB school community where US-bound college applicants, recognizing this tendency to intentionally grade harder in the junior year, have petitioned faculty and administration for to review if not revise that grading approach in that too-telling year. That shift, from what I’ve gathered, has not yet occurred.


Next IB-related posts:

Grades: Inflated? Intentionally Tempered?

To Weight or Not to Weight?

College Prep, But No College Credit?

Extra Curricular. . . Whuh?

Multiple Choice vs. Essay, Dialogue and Debate

Multicultural, Multidisciplinary, Multi-philosophical

A Mother’s Perspective: 5 Reasons Why I Like / Dislike the IB