Difference in diploma programmes a matter of breadth versus depth

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 April, 2012, 12:00am


Parents often ask me how different international schools compare. Yet no one has asked about how students' abilities and needs compare with the demands of the secondary school diploma they will be undertaking.

Although international schools in Hong Kong vary in curriculum and teaching styles, there seems to have been a paradigm shift, with most institutions switching to the International Baccalaureate Diploma programme. Presently, fewer than five international schools offer the American curriculum and teach the General Certificate of Education (GCE) Advanced-Level qualification commonly known as A-levels. Does this mean that the IB qualification is the best credential that can be offered to colleges for admission?

The IB diploma is widely recognised by universities as challenging, preparing students to succeed at university as well as giving them a well-rounded education. However, the rigidity of the programme demands that students do well in all six groups of the IB structure. This requires students to undertake a first language and a second language, one subject each from experimental science group, individuals and societies, maths and computer science, and the arts.

In addition, students are required to follow a course in theory of knowledge (TOK) and each must carry out independent research into a topic of their choice and produce an extended essay of some 4,000 words, as well as undertake a fundamental part of the diploma: the creativity, action and service (CAS) programme.

In the American system, education is primarily the responsibility of state and local governments, and so there is little standardisation in the curriculum. Thus American schools in Hong Kong could teach different curricula but all have the Western Association of Schools and Colleges accreditation (WASC)

A high school grade point average (GPA) is calculated for performance in science (usually three years minimum, normally biology, chemistry and physics); mathematics (usually four years minimum, normally including algebra, geometry, pre-calculus, statistics, calculus); English (usually four years minimum, including literature, languages); social sciences (three years minimum, including various history, government/economics courses) and physical education (at least two years).

The American high school diploma is considered less demanding than the IB and A-level qualification because students don't undertake an external examination at the end of a high school career. Students (usually in 11th grade) may take one or more standardised tests depending on their post-secondary education preferences; that is, the Scholastic Achievement Test (SAT) or the American College Test (ACT), which evaluate the overall level of knowledge and learning aptitude. Competitive universities also require students to take two or three SAT subject tests that focus strictly on a particular subject matter.

The A-level qualification has been arguably the most widely recognised pre-university qualification. It places emphasis on in-depth knowledge, deep understanding, strong reasoning abilities and critical thinking and allows students to select three to four subjects in any combination. There are no educational systems where students could study fewer subjects and still meet the entrance requirements for a university.

The Office of Qualifications and Examination Regulation, which regulates general and vocational qualifications in England and vocational qualifications in Northern Ireland, recently started a six-year study to ascertain how well assessments used in England stand up to their equivalents used in other countries and invited 22 countries and the IBO to review the present A-level programme.

They point out that in drawing comparisons between high school diploma programmes it is necessary to take into account that the breadth and depth of the curriculum - and of individual subjects in other countries - is different from A-levels. They also note the high proportion of external assessment in A-levels was unusual and multiple-choice questions, though common in other programmes at senior secondary level, are not common in A-levels.

So, the overall number of subjects studied by an 18-year-old in different countries varies greatly, with the A-levels at one extreme of the spectrum. With Hong Kong's new diploma, students usually need to take five subjects to get into university and they can take up to eight subjects to meet the higher requirements of some universities.

The IB World magazine dedicated its January 2012 issue to what students really think about the programme. Students listed 'international perspective, wide range of subjects, independence, responsibility, creativity, like-minded peers and critical opportunities' as the best aspects of being an IB student. The worst parts included 'heavy workload, too many assessments, subjects you don't like, fewer subject options, TOK setting targets too often, too much reflection, highly pressured and impact on social life.'

I encouraged our daughter, who was unsure of what career path to pursue, to take A-levels with four full sciences: maths, physics, chemistry and biology. Akanksha would certainly have benefited from the broader IB education because she graduated with majors in politics and Near Eastern studies and then went on to do an MBA focused on energy and entrepreneurship.

Our son, Akhil, who also studied the same A-level subjects, went on to study medicine - which he has wanted to do since he was four years old. He speaks no language other than English and has little interest in the humanities. Would he have been more well-rounded if he had undertaken the IB diploma? Probably, yes. Would he have been able to excel in subjects that he has little interest in? Probably, not.

Duc Luu, chief executive of The Edge Learning Centre, summarises it well: IB is not for students with a narrow skill set or who wish to nurture a skill set extensively.

Anjali Hazari teaches IB and IGCSE biology at an international school in Hong Kong