By D.D. GUTTENPLAN
Published: July 3, 2011
LONDON — Rows of sweating, fidgety college-bound students sit waiting to collect their diplomas, half listening to the platitudes offered by principals and head teachers while their parents sigh with a mixture of pride and relief. It’s high school graduation season.
A century ago a high school diploma was both a certificate of academic prowess and a ticket to a good job, but in today’s competitive global market employers expect much more — as, increasingly, do universities. And where once upon a time every student in a given country worked for the same credential — a diploma in the United States, a baccalaureate in France, O-levels or A-levels in Britain — secondary school students, and their parents, now face a bewildering landscape of choices.
On Tuesday, more than 111,000 students will receive the results of their examinations for the International Baccalaureate, or I.B.
Starting from a handful of schools in Switzerland in the 1960s, the I.B. has spread to 139 countries around the world, with the most rapid growth in the United States, where nearly 7 percent of applicants to universities will have an I.B., although the qualification is offered in only 2 percent of American high schools.
In a survey being issued Monday university admissions officers in Britain, the United States and Europe were asked to compare their own country’s secondary school qualification with the I.B. in nine different categories including business skills, communication skills, creativity, the ability to cope with pressure and detailed knowledge of a subject. British admissions officers rated the A-level superior in assessing detailed knowledge of a subject. However in every other category the I.B. was rated either equal or superior to other qualifications.
The survey was commissioned by ACS International Schools, a group of independent schools based in Britain. Jeremy Lewis, head of ACS Egham International school in Surrey, southwest of London, said the group “has over 30 years’ experience in delivering the International Baccalaureate Diploma, so we welcome the news that the qualification is so highly thought of by university admissions officers from the U.K., U.S. and Europe.”
But are the survey’s claims that the I.B. is “the top passport to international education” really justified? Certainly the I.B. has many admirers both inside and outside of academia. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain promoted the I.B. as a broader alternative to narrow focus of British A-levels. In 2006 Mr. Blair called for a threefold increase in the number of state schools and colleges offering the I.B. in Britain.
“We believe there should be at least one sixth-form college or school in every local authority offering students the choice of the I.B.,” he said.
Michael Gove, minister of education in the current government, is also a fan. “I am a great admirer” of the I.B. he said in a speech last September, adding that he was “determined to support a wider take-up of that qualification” in the United Kingdom. Noting that most students studying for the I.B. in Britain are at private schools, Mr. Gove has also called for the development of “an English Baccalaureate that would ensure that all children — especially those from less privileged backgrounds — have a chance to gain a base of knowledge and a set of life chances too often restricted to the wealthy.”
But the official position of the Department for Education is merely that “the I.B. is an excellent qualification and we support schools in offering this qualification alongside other options.”
This is also the position of Jon Beard, director of undergraduate recruitment at Cambridge University, who described the I.B. merely as “equally acceptable” to other school and national examination systems including the A-levels taken by a majority of applicants.
“We tend not to draw comparisons between different examination systems,” said Mr. Beard, “and prefer instead to consider each set of qualifications in their own right. We make many I.B. offers each year. In addition to high passes in the High School Diploma and the SAT, successful applicants from the United States have normally achieved 5s in Advanced Placement Tests in appropriate subjects.”
The policy at Oxford is similar. “We accept both A-levels and the I.B., and rate both highly,” a spokesman said. “The University thinks it is a good thing that there are these options, which will suit different students. In 2010 we accepted 2,313 students with A-levels and 138 with I.B. — which is roughly in proportion to those applying with the different qualifications.”
Françoise Mélonio, dean of the undergraduate college at Institute of Political Studies in Paris, known as Sciences-Po, said, “We believe the I.B. to be a very useful indicator of academic performance and potential.”
But the majority of her students “come directly to us after their French baccalauréat,” Ms. Mélonio said. And for the international students who make up a fast-growing proportion of the school’s intake, the I.B. is merely one qualification among many.
A closer look at the survey shows that admissions officers in the United States were asked to compare the I.B. with a high school diploma. Yet most colleges in the United States view a diploma as a minimal requirement, with selective colleges typically looking at prospective students’ scores on standardized tests and Advanced Placement, or A.P., examinations in various subjects, as well as their grade point average, or G.P.A.
Harvard’s Web site says that while the college values “predicted A-level and I.B. results along with any information that helps us form a complete picture of an applicant’s academic interests and strengths,” the results from these examinations “cannot substitute for our required admissions testing.” All candidates, including international students, are required to take either the SAT I or ACT as well as two SAT II subject exams.
Christopher Watson, dean of undergraduate admissions at Northwestern University, near Chicago, says that “while the various qualifications are definitely not all the same, one is not better than another.”
“Any credential is less important than what got you there,” he said. “What we’re looking for are candidates who have taken the most demanding subjects offered by their particular school. We look at every class a student takes. For example, some schools offer business studies. But if you’re interested in economics or finance that’s not as helpful as having calculus. An A in gym doesn’t help you get into Northwestern. An A in physics does.
“I think parents don’t realize how in-depth we look,” Mr. Watson continued, adding that the choice of a particular qualification has little impact on college admissions decisions. “You really have to pick a community and an academic setting where your you think your child will be most comfortable.”