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November 8, 2011


The IB Diploma School: Asking the Right Questions

by Anne Paddock
The International Baccalaureate (“IB”) Diploma program has been exploding in the United States.  Since 2003 the number of IB Diploma schools has more than doubled from 355 to 743; a 109% increase in 8 years. The weak economy has not slowed down the growth as the US had 534 IB Diploma schools in 2008 and grew to 743 in 2011 – a nearly 40% increase. The program is popular, no doubt and more prevalent in the south and southwestern states where public education was greatly in need of improvement.

743 schools in the US offer the IB Diploma program with 425, or nearly 60% of the schools located in ten states:
  1. California 82
  2. Florida 72
  3. Texas 51
  4. New York 49
  5. Virginia 35
  6. Colorado 31
  7. North Carolina 28
  8. South Carolina 26
  9. Maryland  26
  10. Georgia 25
Most Americans used to go to high school and earn a high school diploma while taking the SAT, ACT, and AP courses and exams along with other standardized tests whose scores have meaning.  Americans are less familiar with the IB diploma and the scoring system but need to become more familiar with the scores because college admission offices also consider IB scores.

Successful IB diploma graduates earn 24 – 45 total points by taking 6 subject tests:  3 at a standard level and 3 at a high level; and completing diploma requirements. Each of the six subject tests are graded 1 (lowest) to 7 (highest). Successful candidates must earn at least 9 points from the 3 standard level tests and 12 points from the high level tests. Candidates can earn up to 3 points by completing the required essay and in the Theory of Knowledge class that is required. In addition, each candidate must complete the CAS course, which is 150 hours of community service. With that knowledge, parents need to go a step further and ask the following questions:
  1. What IB score do colleges want to see?
  2. How does the IB compare to the AP?
  3. Do all schools offer standard and high level courses in every subject?
  4. What is the world IB Diploma mean score and how does a prospective school compare?
  5. What IB world schools report the highest mean score?
  6. What IB US schools report the highest mean score?
  7. How can a child best prepare for the IB Diploma program?
1.  What IB score do colleges want to see?
Just as certain colleges want minimum SAT scores, many also want to see minimum IB scores and the best person to ask about target scores is the admissions officer at colleges being considered.  There are numerous blogs that talk about this topic and the general opinion is that most Ivy League schools want to see at least a 38 score – only 15% of IB Diploma candidates score a 38 or higher. Important statistics to consider:

World Mean Score: 30.7 (2010)
North America Mean Score: 27.5 (2008)
% of IB Diploma that score 45: 1%
% of IB Diploma that score 40 or higher: 10%
% of IB Diploma that score 38 or higher: 15%
% of IB Diploma that score 36 or higher: 21%
% of IB Diploma that score 34 or higher: 30%
% of IB Diploma that score 32 or higher: 39%

However, there are many other schools that take lower scores, just as schools take applicants that score lower than the 60th percentile on the SAT.

Finally, it is important to point out that the final subject tests given in May of senior year will not be reported until two months later in July, which is typically after colleges make decisions. Yet, college admission officers have an idea of what the score will be based on previous standard level subject tests already taken, grades, and other standardized tests.

2.  How does the IB compare to the AP?
The IB Diploma is a two-year program where the student is tested on 6 subjects and is required to complete an extended essay, take a Theory of Knowledge course, and complete CAS (community service). The IB diploma is awarded to a candidate that scores a total of 24 points or higher out of a possible 45 points and completes the diploma requirements.

The AP courses are single courses taken over a one year period that culminate in the AP exam where the score is 1-5, with 3 passing.

3.  Do all schools offer standard and high level courses in every subject?
Not all schools offer standard and high level courses in every subject but they all have to offer standard and high level courses. Therefore, in evaluating an IB program at a school,request a list of the standard and high level courses offered to make sure the curriculum fits with your child’s needs.

4.  What is the world IB Diploma mean (average) score and how does a prospective school compare?
The worldwide mean score of the student earning the IB Diploma was 30.7 in 2010 but in North America (US, Canada, and the Caribbean) the mean score was 27.5 in 2008 (the most recent information available for North America), according to the Statistical Report published by the International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO). The IBO, based out of Geneva, Switzerland will not release mean scores for individual schools citing privacy concerns but in reality the lack of disclosure is probably due more to keeping parents focused on the big picture – the program – and not how well the candidates are performing in a particular school.

There has been a worldwide effort to simply emphasize the existence of the IB program at a school with the expectation that parents will be awed and not ask the questions that need to be asked because even the students that score below the mean benefit from a strong well-rounded curriculum and earn college credits. However, just as there are wide variations in magnet and high school diploma programs, there is wide variation in how well IB students and schools are performing. Schools readily release SAT, ACT and AP scores because parents demand this information.

The IB Diploma mean score of each school should also be released and although the IBO won’t release this information, they will not be able to keep IB Diploma mean scores of public schools secret in the United States because under the Freedom of Information Act, this information must be provided if asked for. Parents have to ask the school directly for the IB Diploma mean score and although the IB Coordinator (there is one at every IB school)has this information, he/she doesn’t always want to provide it because the school mean scores may be below the world mean score of  30.7.

Private schools don’t have to provide this information but if they want parents to pay the tuition, they will be motivated to be a strong performing school and provide this information when asked just as they provide information on the SAT, ACT, and AP results. Generally speaking, the schools that perform above the mean readily publish this information on their website or provide the information when asked. In looking at an IB school, ask the following questions:
  1. How many students are IB diploma candidates (not certificate candidates)?
  2. What was the percentage of diploma candidates that earned the diploma?
  3. What was the low and high score of the most recent IB Diploma class?
  4. What was the mean or average score of the most recent IB Diploma class?
  5. How many students scored a 38 or higher?
  6. How many years has the school offered the IB diploma?
In all fairness, the IB is relatively new to the United States and most schools need several years to increase the IB candidate population to raise the scores. But if an IB school has been around for many years and their scores are still below the mean, questions need to be asked.

The IB program in the United States is big business for the IBO and the release of mean scores may invite criticism, put pressure on schools, and slow the growth.  A focus on improving scores and improving the mean instead of rapid growth may be better in the long run though.  The US is their largest market with nearly 1,300 schools (Canada is a distant second with 310 schools) that offer the Primary Years, Middle Years, and/or the IB Diploma program. From 2003 – 2011, the number of IB diploma schools grew 109% and the growth continues.

The percentage of candidates that earn the diploma can also be a useful number. Worldwide, 80% of candidates pass the tests and receive the IB diploma but in the United States the pass rate was 70% in 2008. A school that is reporting a 90% pass rate is preparing their students very well for the tests. If a school’s success rate is 50-60% year after year, then questions need to be asked regarding how the candidates are chosen and how well the school is preparing the candidates for the tests. The problem could also be with inadequate academic preparation in the primary, middle, and early high school years – hence, the most recent growth of these programs in many schools.

5.  What IB world schools report the highest mean score?
There are many excellent IB schools in the world with those reporting the highest mean scores outside the United States.  The Anglo-Chinese School in Singapore reported a mean score of 40.8 in 2010 and the North London Collegiate School reported a mean score of 40 followed by Sevenoaks in England that reported a 39.7. England actually had 20 schools that had an average score of 34 or higher in 2010, which is amazing especially since the United Kingdom only has 210 IB Diploma schools. If the US IB Diploma schools were performing at the same level, there would be 73 schools that report a IB Diploma mean of 34 or higher.

6.  What IB US schools report the highest mean?
The top performing IB schools in the US are only known by the IBO in Geneva, Switzerland and they won’t release the information. To obtain the mean score, the 743 IB Diploma schools in the US need to be contacted directly and requested to provide the information which is feasible but time-consuming. The British School of Houston in Texas reported a mean score of 34 for its most recent graduating class as did the Gulliver School in Miami, Florida.

Newsweek magazine included seven IB high schools in their 2011 list of 20 of “America’s Best High Schools:”

4.   Stanton College Prep, Jacksonville, Florida
6.   Jefferson County IB School, Birmingham, Alabama
7.   Signature School, Evansville, Indiana
9.   Suncoast, Riviera Beach, Florida
10. North Hills Prep, Irving,Texas
16. City Honors, Buffalo, NY
20. International Academy, Bloomfield Hills, MI

Of the seven schools, only two – the International Academy and Signature – published the mean score of their 2010 IB Diploma graduating class – a 32 and 30, respectively. The five remaining schools were contacted and asked for the information:

Stanton College Prep 31
Jefferson County IB School 29
Signature School 30
Suncoast 31
North Hills Prep 32
City Honors 31
International Academy 32

7.  How can a child best prepare for the IB Diploma program?
Nearly 20 years ago, the IBO realized the candidates for the IB Diploma need to be better prepared for the rigorous program that starts in 11th grade so in 1994, the IB Middle Years program was started for children 11 – 16 years old.  In 1997, the IB Primary Years program was added for children from 3 – 12 years old. The best way to prepare a child for the IB diploma program is to enroll the child in an IB Primary or Middle Years program. These programs are currently being adopted by many IB schools and should increase success rates and test scores in the next decade.

The IB is a well-respected and rigorous educational program that should be considered in these global times. However, as with any magnet or educational program, there are schools that are underperforming, performing at average levels, and those that are producing outstanding results.  There is a wide range of scores for the IB and this is very important to remember because colleges do pay attention to the scores just as they pay attention to SAT and ACT scores, AP exam scores, and other standardized test scores.  One day the IBO in Switzerland will realize that those paying for their program (either indirectly through public schools or directly through private schools) have a right to know mean performance scores and not make it so difficult to obtain this information.
Copies of statistical reports cited above are available at

International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO)
Route des Morillons, 15
Grand Saconnex, Geneve
1218 – CH
00 41 22 791 7740

International Baccalaureate Americas (IB Americas)
7501 Wisconsin Avenue, Suite 200 West
Bethesda, Maryland 20814

International Baccalaureate North America (IBNA)
475 Riverside Drive, Suite 240
New York, NY 10115
  1. May 1 2012

    I think the route depends on the child, his or her interests, strengths and what is available at the high school the child is attending. The important thing to know is that there are differences in how colleges interpret scores (i.e. there is a difference between a student that scores a 3 or a 4 on an AP exam and one that scores a 5) just as there is a difference between a student who scores a 30 on the IB exam and one who scores a 38. It is important for parents to know that the IB diploma program is not this one great broad program that colleges consider all students equal. Just as the SAT, ACT, and other standardized tests have broad ranges, so does the IB.

    There are also SAT Subject Tests (which are comparable to AP exams) that high school students (generally those that take the AP route) need to consider because many colleges require them. In general, I’ve been told that students that take the AP route should also take 3 SAT Subject Tests in their strongest areas. Because most teens don’t know what college they want to go to, they need to take a lot of standardized tests (some colleges require AP exams, some require SAT Subject Tests) during their high school years. For more information on standardized tests, go to this link:

    Good luck!

  2. Jen O
    May 1 2012

    Since you are so well versed about the IB diploma program, I would be interested in hearing your opinion about the benefits of going the IB route versus AP. We will have a high school student in a year and a half and we’re trying to find the right school.

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