AP Courses and Their Alternatives

AP vs. Honors vs. IB vs. Dual Credit: Which is right for me?

Course selection is a matter of both planning and luck in many districts. What courses are students prepared for, which courses fit their schedule, and which still have open seats? With the addition of the choice between Honors, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate /Dual Credit, the selection process can quickly become overwhelming. The three options are not interchangeable: each will have different prerequisites and expectations, as well as potential benefits. Understanding this can help to demystify the scheduling process. Additionally, all of these courses and tracks are open to students with learning disabilities, at the individual district’s discretion.

Honors courses

Honors courses are generally considered to be faster paced, more rigorous, and in more depth than General Education or College Prep courses. (Some districts may use different names for these tracks.) In these classes, students will be expected to spend more time outside of class completing assignments, collaborating with peers, or doing research. Honors classes have a midterm and final exam or project set by the individual teacher. Students in these classes may or may not see a GPA point benefit, depending on district policy. There may be an exam or GPA requirement to be allowed to enroll in this course, depending on school policy. Teachers are not usually provided with additional training to teach these courses. The curriculum for these courses will be provided by the district.

Consider if: The student is a freshman, junior, or sophomore who may later enter AP, IB, or Dual Credit courses.

Advanced Placement courses

AP courses are considered to be equivalent to first year college courses in the given topic. The pace will be faster even than Honors, and students will be doing most of their reading and work outside of class, with classroom time dedicated to discussing and working with what students read outside of class. While the College Board encourages districts to allow any and all interested students to enroll in an AP course (known as open enrollment), some schools have a test, recommendation, or GPA requirement for inclusion.

AP courses conclude with students taking the standardized AP exam, though there may also be a final exam or project set by the individual teacher. This exam score is the sole determinant of whether a student earns college credit for the course. Most districts, though not all, offer students a GPA advantage for taking the course. AP instructors are encouraged, though not required, to take training provided by the College Board, though they and the district still have autonomy over their syllabus.

Avoid if: The student does not test well and there are other options available.

International Baccalaureate

IB is a worldwide standardized curriculum intended to provide rigorous college-level education to students who either do not have access to, or are not yet at the age for, college coursework. IB courses have a set, standardized final exam, given to all students taking the course, both college and high school students, locally or world-wide. College credit is granted based on the final course grade. Parameters for admission to the course vary by school. These courses are designed to be identical to a college course, though taught by a district instructor within the high school. These course’s syllabus and curriculum are set by the IB program, and teachers are required to hold advanced degrees or have additional training in order to teach these classes. Students generally earn a GPA increase for taking these classes, though each district’s policy may vary.

Consider if: The idea of a world-wide curriculum and sharing experiences and knowledge with learners internationally are appealing.

Dual Credit

Dual Credit courses are offered via a partnership between a specific college and the school district, making the high school course (at least in theory) identical to the college course, using the same curriculum, assessments, and grading expectations/criteria. In many ways, Dual Credit and IB programs look alike. Admission to the course or program is determined by the individual school district, and the college credit for the course may only be applicable at the partner college. So a student intending to continue to college further afield or out of state may not see their credits transfer. Students should do their own research into this area. Grading for the course and credit earning is based on all coursework and exams, rather than just a final. Teachers of these courses may or may not be required to have additional experience or training in the field of the course. Like the IB program, students may be awarded a GPA advantage for the course, but each district has its own policy in place.

Consider if: The student wants their entire year’s work considered in the assignment of college credit.

But now what?

Due to the vast level of cross-over between these options, most school districts do not offer all four options. Since most of these programs begin after 9th grade, in the winter of freshman years, students should begin to research the options available to them, and consider their own strengths and weaknesses when selecting a path. No path is set in stone: an 11th grade Honors student can take 12th grade AP coursework, and a 10th grade student doing Dual Credit work may choose to take Honors in 11th grade. There is always the ability to move between these options, or to leave these paths altogether and take general education or college prep courses, if appropriate. Making these choices can feel overwhelming to some students and families, but try to look at them as alternate routes to the same destination: graduation and success. Each of the options can take a willing student to meet their goals.