Students' perceptions of the non-academic advantages and disadvantages of participation in advanced placement courses and international baccalaureate programs.
Because gifted students, in general, learn quickly, exhibit great efficiency in problem-solving, demonstrate facility in understanding advanced and complex concepts in a variety of reasoning domains, and are proficient and creative producers of thoughts and tangible assets (e.g., Renzulli, n.d.; Tannenbaum, 1983, 2003), the interaction between gifted students and their environment produces situations in the classroom requiring curricular and instructional differentiation in order for them to meet their potential. One of the most efficient ways educators can deliver that more appropriate curriculum is by grouping gifted students with students of commensurate ability.
In addition to academic and intellectual (Adams-Byers, Whitsell, & Moon, 2004; Feldhusen & Saylor, 1990; Kulik & Kulik, 1992; Sowell, 1993; Wright & Leroux, 1997) benefits, research has linked ability-grouping, the "re-grouping of students for the purpose of providing curriculum aimed at a common instructional level" (Fiedler, Lange, & Weinbrenner, 1993, p. 5), to positive social/emotional outcomes for gifted students (Adams-Byers, Whitsell, & Moon, 2004; Gross, 1997, 1998; Lando & Schneider, 1997; Wright & Leroux, 1997). For example, gifted students have reported social/emotional advantages to ability grouping, such as not being teased because of their intelligence, being around other students who understand them and think like they do, and having a more trusting, faster-paced, and more fun class atmosphere (Adams-Byers, Whitsell, & Moon, 2004). Furthermore, high-ability students in homogeneous groups have exhibited more mutual support, encouragement to persist in the face of difficulty, and overall prosocial behavior toward each other than those in mixed-ability groups and homogeneous groups of students of average ability (Lando & Schneider, 1997). These findings are consistent with the "cohort effect," characterized by peer bonding, mutual encouragement, and affectionate guidance among grouped students of similar abilities and interests (Gross, 1997, 1998; Wright & Leroux, 1997). In general, past findings suggest positive social/emotional outcomes for grouping gifted students.
Grouping research, however, also highlights specific social/emotional disadvantages. For example, advanced students may not want to be singled out or treated differently and as a result of grouping, may suffer a temporary drop in self-concept when they are grouped with their intellectual peers (Feldhusen & Saylor, 1990; Kulik & Kulik, 1992), feel isolated from a wider sphere of friends (Adams-Byers, Whitsell, & Moon, 2004; Wright & Leroux, 1997), and face rejection by the rest of the school (Coleman & Cross, 1988; Cross, Coleman, & Stewart, 1993; Manor-Bullock, Look & Dixon, 1995; Schroeder-Davis, 1999; Tannenbaum, 1962).
Despite the possible disadvantages of ability grouping, the most common ways American high schools support the unique learning needs of advanced students is by offering Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) courses, which are, by their nature, ability-grouped settings. The AP program is composed of 31 courses and 34 exams across 19 subject areas from which a student can choose any number to complete, and is more widely offered (College Board, 2005) than the IB program (IBO, 2003, 2005), a program of study that involves completion of a number of required courses, exams, essays, and projects during the last two years of high school (IBO, 2003).
AP and IB programs are generally endorsed inside and outside the field of gifted education (College Board, 1986; Cox & Daniel, 1985; Daniel & Cox, 1992; Feldhusen, 1995; Jacoby, 1992; Marnholtz, 1994; Pyryt, Masharov, & Feng, 1993); however, very few researchers have investigated their appropriateness for the needs of advanced learners (Callahan, 2003). The limited research that does exist suggests that AP and IB classes provide students with more appropriate and challenging curricula by allowing them to study advanced material at a pace commensurate with their advanced rate of learning (Bleske-Rechek, Lubinski, & Benbow, 2004; Lubinski & Benbow, 2000; Oregon University System, Oregon Department of Education, and Office of Community College Services, 1999). However, significant questions remain regarding the degree to which the courses actually prepare students for advanced college-level courses, as well as the effect of the high-stakes testing environment and curricular rigidity, pace, and overemphasis on breadth (AP) or depth (IB) Center for Education, 2002; Center for Undergraduate Education in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Education, 1999; Commission on Life Sciences, 1990; National Academy of Sciences (NAS), 2002).
Unfortunately, we know even less about the non-academic, social/ emotional implications of AP and IB for program participants and the social context of AP and IB courses or the social context in which they are situated, even though these factors are critical to understanding program effectiveness. Coleman (1995) insightfully noted:
I have argued that educators of the gifted should pay more attention to the social context created in some specialized environments. We have looked almost exclusively at cognitive outcomes, [although] noncognitive outcomes are as important as cognitive outcomes and these latter outcomes may provide more powerful evidence for the appropriateness of specialized "environments than the former. (p. 175).
To date, there have been three investigations into AP and/or IB that shed light on non-academic implications of participation. Survey results of 16 recent IB graduates (Taylor & Porath, 2006) and interviews with 5 female AP and IB participants (Vanderbrook, 2006) yielded similar findings. First, they revealed that participants perceived experiencing a very large workload. A "considerable proportion" (37.5%) of Taylor and Proath's (2006) rsepondents felt as though their workload during participation in IB was "excessive, unmanageable, and/or detrimental to their psychological well-being" (p. 153). Second, they both revealed the presence of strong academic and emotional support that served as a support network both during and after participation. They noted that this support was based on shared educational experiences, the sheer amount of time the respondents spent with each other at school, and the comfort and safety of being among peers of a commensurate level of ability. Third, these researchers found that most former and current AP and IB students preferred their advanced classes over their general education courses, despite the negative consequences they perceived. Although these studies had small sample sizes and possible sampling biases, their findings were surprisingly consistent.
Shaunessy, Suldo, Hardesty, and Shaffer (2006) compared the psychological functioning (perceived climate, academic functioning, life satisfaction, and psychopathology) of IB Diploma participants (n = 122) to a control group of general education students (n = 179) in the same high school. Results suggested that, overall, IB students had "similar or superior levels of psychological adjustment relative to their general education peers" (p. 84). As a whole, the IB students reported more positive perceptions of the climate, specifically student-teacher relations and student interpersonal relations, than their general education peers; achieved at a significantly higher level; and reported more confidence in their academic abilities. However, there was no difference between IB and general education students in their life satisfaction, and IB students in this study "did not manifest higher levels of internalizing problems (e.g., anxiety, depression, somatic symptoms) than did general education students." In fact, both gifted and high-achieving learners in the IB program "reported fewer externalizing symptoms (e.g., delinquent and aggressive behavior) of psychopathology than general education peers" (p. 85). And although this study also had sampling issues (i.e., there were almost double the number of females than males in the study, which could have affected the reporting of internalizing and externalizing behavior, and there were almost double the number of 9th- and 10th-grade students than 11thand 12th-grade students), the findings of this study provide further information on the contextual and non-cognitive aspects of AP and IB participation.
Although grouping literature suggests possible non-academic advantages and disadvantages of grouping advanced students, only three studies focus on the non-cognitive impacts of grouping in AP courses and IB programs, specifically. The results of these studies provide guidance in focusing further research--suggesting a need to further explore the non-academic advantages and disadvantages to AP or IB participation and to articulate more fully the differences between AP and IB involvement and the implications for students. Therefore, the research questions guiding this study are: (a) What do AP and/or IB students perceive as the non-academic (social, emotional, or other) ramifications of AP or IB enrollment? and (b) what are the similarities and differences between AP and IB students' perceptions of these non-academic factors?
This study was part of a larger study investigating the "fit" of AP and IB courses for a broad range of gifted high school secondary students (Hertberg-Davis, Callahan, & Kyburg, 2006). Twenty-four high schools from seven states were selected for participation in the larger study; of those twenty-four, four schools from one state were chosen for in-depth multiple-case analysis for the current study (Yin, 1994). The four schools, which were representative of the demographics of the twenty-four sites, were chosen using stratified purposeful sampling (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). The stratifications were by community size (urban, suburban, and rural), student demographics (SES and ethnicity), and the advanced programs offered (AP or IB).
Appleton High School was a public urban high school offering AP courses. At the time of the study, this school had a disproportionately high percentage of Hispanic and Asian American students and a low percentage of African American and Caucasian students relative to state demographics. The students at this high school were performing below average on state tests. Appleton offered 28 AP courses to their almost 2,000 students and had a school-wide AP participation rate of 23%.
Parks High School was a public rural high school offering AP courses. At the time of the study, this school had a disproportionately high percentage of Caucasian students and low percentage of African, Asian, and Hispanic Americans relative to state demographics. The students at this high school were surpassing the average on state tests. The school offered 6 AP courses for its 426 students; their ratio of AP classes to students was lower than that of Appleton: 1 to 53. According to the school guidance counselor, between 15 and 20% of the student body participated in AP courses.
Ignacious High School was a public suburban magnet school offering the IB program. The school's ethnic breakdown was fairly representative of state demographics, but the students at this school were surpassing the average on state tests. According to the school's website, ten percent of the student body was enrolled in the IB Diploma Program, but this percentage did not take into account the number of students enrolled in pre-IB or IB-track programs. This school's IB program offered eligible students the option of earning a full Diploma in IB, which required the completion of 6 academic courses and examinations in 6 different subject areas, a minimum of 150 hours in the Creativity, Action and Service Program, and an Extended Essay.
Crayton Heights High School was a public urban school offering IB courses. This school had a disproportionately high percentage of Hispanic and Asian American students and low percentage of African American and Caucasian students relative to state demographics. The students at this school were performing below average on state tests. Forty percent of the student body was participating in pre-IB and IB certificate and diploma programs. The IB program at this school allowed students to complete either a Diploma or a Certificate program, which allowed them more flexibility in class choice and course load.
Eighty-four students from the four study sites participated in focus group interviews. Students were chosen because they were enrolled in AP or IB courses and represented the diversity in gender and ethnicity in their schools' AP and IB courses. Fifty-seven percent (n = 48) of the students participating in the study were female.
Classroom observations and interviews were used in the larger study analysis. In this report only interview data were analyzed. These interviews with AP and IB students were conducted primarily through small focus groups composed of three to five students per session. Students who had participated in the program but who elected to drop out of courses or the program were interviewed individually. In each case, a semi-structured interview protocol was used, enhanced by questioning designed to elicit information-rich responses or to follow up on questions from the classroom observations or emergent themes.
After each interaction within the schools, researchers recorded field notes. All interviews were tape recorded and transcribed verbatim. Initially, the interview data were read and subjected to content analysis. Similar responses were assigned specific codes indicating commonalty in response. Codes were refined and collapsed after further data-combing to yield final themes.
Research Question 1: What do AP and/or IB students perceive as the non-academic (social, emotional, or other) implications of AP or IB enrollment?
AP and IB students perceived both positive and negative consequences of participation in AP and IB courses. Among the significant advantages AP and IB students attributed to their participation were: (a) a better class atmosphere than in their general education courses, (b) a special bond among participants, and (c) pride and self-confidence derived from completing the more challenging work offered in these courses. Interviewed students, however, also reported that they perceived disadvantages to their involvement in AP or IB courses. Three themes emerged concerning disadvantages: (a) the perception of unflattering stereotypes assigned to AP and IB students, (b) the heavy workload, and (c) stress and fatigue.
Atmosphere. AP and IB students' responses suggested that the students regard their AP and IB classrooms as having "a more open environment" (Appleton, SFG1) and an overall better atmosphere than their general classes. Students attributed the improved classroom atmosphere of AP and IB courses to the perception that the teachers of these courses were better prepared to meet the needs of advanced students and that the teachers accorded students more respect and responsibility. Additionally, AP and IB students believed they were more similar to and had more in common with other program students than with students in general education classes in which they were currently enrolled or had attended in the past.
Teacher preparedness to meet advanced needs. AP and IB students consistently reported their preference for their advanced classes. Many noted how unfulfilling regular classrooms were for them, in large part because they believed their general education teachers were not equipped to teach advanced students who genuinely wanted to learn the material, not just pass the class. For example, one IB student noted:
In regular classes, it's hard to concentrate because some teachers ... don't really care as much. I've taken regular classes, and it's more, "Just get this done, and you can pass!" And, it's OK, but the highest level teachers care more for you to understand how to do it and not just pass. (Crayton Heights, SFG2)
An AP student also called attention to the lack of general education teachers' knowledge of how to meet the needs of advanced learners. She explained that in general classes, the teacher "doesn't relate to us, he doesn't talk to us. And then like, I just finish the work pretty quickly, and then I have nothing else to do. Nothing." (Parks, SFG2).
Teacher respect for students. AP and IB students believed that their AP and IB teachers were more fun, enjoyed students more, and gave them more respect than did teachers in other courses. One IB student noted bluntly: "I think the teachers have a lot more fun with us. I think they like us better. Seriously!" (Ignacious, SFG9). Similarly, an AP student noted:
They give you a lot more respect in AP classes, the teachers. Because they assume that if you're in the class, then you're smart enough and ... what you're going to say is actually intelligent. So, the teachers will respect you and everything; they'll listen to what you have to say as opposed to the normal classes, where teachers just, they "have" you, instead of listening to you. (Appleton, SFG3)
AP and IB students also attributed teacher respect to the students' higher educational goals and greater maturity and independence. Students believed that class homogeneity in these characteristics (i.e., higher educational goals, greater maturity, and independence) allowed AP and IB teachers to give their students more responsibility. For example, one AP student suggested:
I think AP teachers can be like that because they know we've had the initiative to get into the AP class; they know we're going to do the work and we're not just going to be lazy and not do it. So, they can feel like they can be laid-back and just give us the work and rely on us to do it. (Parks, SFG2)
Overwhelmingly, AP and IB students noted that the positive relationship that existed between themselves and their AP and IB teachers was one of the primary benefits of taking these courses.
Feelings of similarity toward other participants. Students also reported feeling more comfortable in AP and IB classes than in general education classes because other students in the class had similarly high academic goals and academic interests. Students attributed this comfort to a diminished fear of peer judgment for answering questions, a common striving toward academic success, and the resultant ability to just "be yourself." For example, one AP student explained:
I like AP English because I like being with advanced students, and not with the regular type. The people that take AP English are like-minded people. Some people would frown upon those people who try hard in school and they just don't think it's cool or something, but when you're in a class and everybody else in the class is trying hard to get good grades, it makes it a lot easier to learn. (Parks, SFG2)
Another suggested that she felt more comfortable answering questions in her AP classes than in other classes. In other classes, she felt like she was either always the only one answering questions, or she did not speak at all because she felt "really awkward" (Appleton, SFG1). These comments are representative of the experiences of many AP and IB students who indicated that while they felt some discomfort about--or pressure to mask--their academic interests in general education courses, they felt more able to be themselves while in their AP and IB classes.
Feelings of difference from non-participants. Some of the discomfort that AP and IB students reported feeling in their general education courses seemed to stem from feelings of difference from their peers in those classes. For example, one IB student noted: "[IB students] just form this really different group. I just think [that] everyone else in school is so different" (Crayton Heights, SFG1). Participants reported feeling different from non-participants in terms of their areas of interest and topics of conversation. For example, one IB student reported: "In normal class, I know they talk about: 'Oh, I did [X] this weekend, blah, blah, blah ...' but we're talking about philosophy and stuff like reality. And it gets really awkward" (Crayton Heights, SFG1).
The majority of our time is at school, and we're in our class, and I think [when] we talk more in class, it's ... not, "Let's go to the mall!" It's more like, "Hey! How did you get your answer?" (Crayton Heights, SFG2)
Furthermore, AP and IB students reported believing that major differences between AP and IB students and students not taking these courses were motivation and desire to learn. An AP student noted, "Well, I think part of the difference between AP students and regular students is just who wants to apply themselves and get the work done" (Appleton, SFG1). Another said, "I know the people who are not in AP ... most of them ... just come to school just to be in school. It's really not hard to be in AP as long as you take school seriously, you know. The other kids don't" (Appleton, SFG4). An IB student noted,: "Regular classes are more filled with people that aren't willing to learn (Crayton Heights, SFG2)
However, interviews with AP and IB students also suggested that some believed they had greater intellectual ability than students not taking these courses. For example, an AP student noted:
Sometimes I get frustrated with the students in my regular classes ... I pretty much like everyone, but sometimes some of what people say in regular classes, it's like, 'God, are you just naturally that stupid? Does a thought cross your mind that is intelligent at all?' But in AP classes ... They're all on the same thinking level. (Appleton, SFG1)
An IB student explained:
I'm a server, so I had to learn the menu and everything, and it just came so quick! And I'm training with three other people ... they just take regular classes. And there's such a difference in the ability [off IB students compared to regular students ... to catch onto something. (Crayton Heights, SFG1)
Another IB student agreed:
S1: You feel bad that [non-IB students] are not being challenged and pushed to do things and they just kind of go through the day ... S2: But then it's kind of like, can they handle it? Because I have friends who are failing ... S3: How can you not spell that word? S1: Right, Right! S3: "Cat" S1: Exactly! (Crayton Heights, SFG1)
The comments suggesting some degree of intellectual superiority over non-participants were not as common and consistent as those suggesting superior motivation, but they did emerge.
In sum, AP and IB students reported preferring the classroom environments of AP and IB courses, believing that the generally high level of motivation and homogeneity in academic interests, maturity, and intellectual ability of the students in AP and IB courses resulted in more learning and teachers treating them with greater respect and affording them more responsibility. Additionally, they felt free to "be themselves" in class without fear of judgment from their peers.
Special Bond among Participants
An additional advantage perceived by AP and IB students to taking these advanced courses was the relationships they developed with their classmates. AP and IB students noted that they considered many of their AP and IB classmates "friends" and consistently referred to the "special bond" that existed among them. Many students reported that their friendships with other AP and IB students were long-standing. In many cases, they were originally grouped in elementary gifted and talented homogeneous classrooms, and those relationships were maintained in high school honors and AP and IB courses. Two AP students in a group interview noted:
S1: It seems like some of us have been grouped for like a long time ... A lot of times you start with the GT program or whatever, so you find yourself ... sitting next to the same person you did in 9th grade because ... we've been in the same classes for I don't know how long ... S2: Yeah, we grew up together. (Appleton, SFG1)
An IB student similarly commented: "You have this x amount of people that take all these classes, and they're the same kids, and so you take classes together, and you eat lunch together, you become friends with them, you hang out with them" (Crayton Heights, SFG1). Many students noted that these friendships were nurtured by shared experiences and an ability to help each other academically. An example of this mutual support comes from the comments of another IB student: "This sounds really corny, but you are kind of like a support group, because everybody's going through the same thing ... People really help each other" (Crayton Heights, SFG1). An AP student felt the same way: "Everyone in the AP classes, we're all like friends and everything, so we're all going through the same thing and it's a new experience for everyone so we all help each other out" (Appleton, SFG4). While the close, long-standing bond among classmates taking AP and IB courses served as a support network for many students, for students new to the community or taking advanced classes for the first time, this tightknit community felt difficult to break into A former IB student noted that she had decided to quit the program for this reason; "I feel like I didn't connect with the students as much because most of them, I didn't go to school with them before and we were just too different people" (Crayton Heights, SFG5).
Pride. Another major benefit of taking AP and IB courses that students consistently noted was the pride and confidence they derived from taking on the challenging work in AP and IB courses.
And you're proud of yourself too when you do well in 1AP classes] ... Everybody's like, "Good job. You worked hard for that." Your friends are like, "Yeah, that's great," and teachers ... But that doesn't really matter because you know you did well. It's like a certain type of inner satisfaction ... you know that you've overcome more of a challenge than you had if you were in regular classes. (Parks, SFG1)
As a group, interviewed AP and IB students believed that the workload, content, and pace of these advanced classes resulted in greater challenges than they experienced in general education courses, and they derived pride from being able to rise to the challenges. For example, one AP student noted, "I just got my first A+ on an AP English paper and I was like, 'Yes!' And I was so excited. It's more of a satisfaction to you if you do good [in AP classes]" (Parks, SFG1). Similarly, an IB student noted that grades had more meaning because of the challenging work." It's challenging, and I'd rather get lower grades in a more challenging course than pass through all the easy ones because then it doesn't mean anything to me" (Crayton Heights, SFG1)
Students also reported that they perceived disadvantages to their involvement in AP or IB courses. Three themes emerged: (a) the perception of unflattering stereotypes assigned to AP and IB students (b) the heavy workload, and (c) stress and fatigue.
Negative stereotypes. Most AP and IB students perceived an unflattering stereotype of AP and IB students among other students at their schools. AP participants felt non-AP students prejudged them as "Smart," "geek[s]," or intelligent, which limited the range of acceptable social behavior. For example, an AP student noted that his friend made fun of him for using a slang term because AP students do not use slang (Parks, SFG). IB students also felt prejudged; they noted that they were perceived by non-IB students as arrogant, "exclusive," or "snobby" (Ignacious, SFG5).
Heavy workload. Although AP and IB students noted their clear preference for the level of challenge (i.e., pace, content, and workload) offered in AP and IB courses, many referred to the workload as extremely time-consuming. Not only did the workload in AP and IB courses limit some students' ability to participate in extracurricular activities, many reported that they needed to use every spare moment--during lunch, during non-AP or non-IB classes, and outside of school--to finish their work. For example, a group of IB students noted that they "all do homework during lunch" because "you have to use every minute" (Crayton Heights, SFG1). Similarly, both AP and IB students noted that they needed to finish homework for other classes during non-AP or -IB class time, limiting their ability to participate in class discussions or casual conversations. Many AP and IB students also acknowledged that the workload in these courses hindered the extent to which they could interact with their friends and family outside of school. Other IB students noted that they were not able to devote as much time to socializing as their peers not taking these courses:
[IB] takes a lot of time, I'll tell you that much. If I was taking regular classes, I would be doing a lot more in my social life than I am now. [Other students agree]. (Crayton Heights, SFG4)
A student who dropped out of the IB program after her junior year confirmed:
It's nice to be able to enjoy my senior year. Now I have a job, and I can go out with my friends. And all my IB friends, they can never go out, except on weekends because they have so much homework. (Ignacious, SFG5)
Stress and fatigue. Students reported that the workload, pace and level of challenge, and the grades they received in AP and IB courses had an impact on their emotional state. Students reported experiencing frequent stress and pressure to excel, leading to a variety of consequences. One AP student reported, 'You lose ... you lose a lot of yourself though, because it's so stressful" (Appleton, SFG3). Students' comments revealed that the pressure to succeed in these more challenging courses, and the subsequent stress, was largely self-imposed. For example, one IB student noted, "It's that whole thing ingrained in my head: I must get an A or else I explode" (Ignacious, SFG1). Another IB student said:
The problem is that I'm one of those people that has to excel at things. And so I kind of work myself to death in IB because I'm trying to be at the top. And we have certain people in our class who are very, very, very at the top. And so I try to fight myself up to this elite group, and it causes a lot of stress. (Ignacious, SFG2)
By far, the most commonly reported adverse consequence to AP and IB participation was fatigue. Both AP and IB students repeatedly noted their chronic fatigue and their desire to sleep in their spare time, which they attributed directly to the intense AP or IB workload. They explained that in order for them to be able to complete their work, they had to sacrifice sleep. IB students called attention to their chronic fatigue far more frequently and with more intensity than did AP students. For example, one IB students commented, "Seriously, so many people are chronically tired" (Ignacious, SFG9); "I don't remember a day I have not been tired since freshman year" (Ignacious, SFG1); "Sometimes I think, 'God, I want to go to bed now!' "(Ignacious, SFG1); "S1: If get 6 hours of sleep, I am so happy! S2: Well yeah. We all don't get enough sleep. (All students agree)" (Crayton Heights, SFG4); "S1: Well, I've gotten used to it. Like, I'll go like days without sleep. S2: Yeah. S3: Running on two hours of sleep ..." (Crayton heights, SFG4); "We have so much work on us at home, and we come to school and we're tired, and we don't feel like doing anything" (Ignacious, SFG1); "I'm a student athletic trainer at school, and I like doing that. And besides that and school, I spend most of my time asleep. Any spare moment" (Ignacious, SFG1); and "I: What do you do for fun? S1: Sleep" (Ignacious, SFG1).
Research Question 2: What are the differences between AP and IB students" perceptions of these non-academic factors?
Differences emerged in terms of students' perceptions of the nonacademic aspects of AP and IB course participation. Students in the IB program were more likely than those in AP to complain about the rigidity of their program because of the reported limitations it placed on class choice, extracurricular activities, and interactions with nonparticipants. Additionally, IB students were more likely than AP students to cite differences between themselves and other students in their schools, to perceive a negative stereotype associated with the program, and to report experiencing great stress and exhaustion.
Program rigidity. Most IB students interviewed, but not one participating AP student in the sample, regarded their program's rigidity (i.e., the required course sequence and schedule, the intensity of the workload, the requirement that students take multiple IB courses, and the limits IB participation placed on extracurricular activities and interaction with students outside of the program) as a disadvantage of the program. One IB student commented on the restrictiveness of the course sequence and schedule:
I think a lot of the schools it's like you can choose, I'll take this IB class and this AP class. But here they say if you're in the IB program, you have to take all IB classes. So once you got here, it's like cool, they have these [other] classes, but I can't take them. (Ignacious, SFG1)
One other IB student noted that participating in the IB program ruled out other attractive opportunities:
I didn't know it was going to take that much time of my life. I didn't get to do any of the clubs that I wanted to do. I didn't get to join any organizations I wanted to. I couldn't get an afternoon job. It took away so much time. (Ignacious, SFG8)
Friendship patterns. Not only did the structure of IB and the resulting intense workload limit participants' ability to take other classes and participate in extracurricular activities they would have enjoyed, it hindered their ability to interact with students not in the IB program. A group of IB students explained:
S1: You're pretty much with the same people for the next four years. I mean, I've had the same people in every class. Some of the people in my classes now, like, half of us go to the same class next after that one. We all walk together. S2: There's like a down side, because like our classes are a unique group of people that are up at the top and you only interact ... it's like a different world. You might as well be going to a different school if you're in IB. S3: You really don't get a chance to socialize with the other people here who go to regular classes. It's like you don't know them really. (Crayton Heights, SFG1)
The relative rigidity of the IB program (i.e., the reported restrictions it placed on class scheduling, extracurricular activity participation, and interaction with other students) was, not surprisingly, related to fewer IB student reports of friendships outside of the circle of IB students and more reports of friendships within the program. AP students, on the other hand, who on average spent less time in advanced classes, never complained about the rigidity of their program.
Feelings of difference and stereotypes. IB rigidity (i.e., reported restrictiveness of class schedules, extracurricular activity participation, and interaction with non-participants) translated into more frequent and negative reports of feelings of difference from other students and the sense that others held stereotypes of IB students. One IB student explained:
S1: The only thing I don't like about IB is that you don't get to connect with the popular culture stuff, like you just form this really different group like, I just think like everyone else in school is so different. S2: It feels like a bubble. (Crayton Heights, SFG1)
Another noted, "There is a very strong divide between IB and non-IB. Not like real strong, because I don't think people really discriminate, but it's there" (Ignacious, SFG9), Illustrating the IB stereotype, one former IB student noted, "The IB students sometimes are just exclusive. Some of them are not, but some of them don't talk to anyone who's not in IB because they're in IB and they're better than you are" (Ignacious, SFG5). IB students perceived the stereotype and negative feelings as related to the rigid grouping philosophy of the IB program: "There were a lot of complaints about the IB people feeling superior and people being like, 'Ughh.' So we just came to an impasse because it's a 'school within a school.' What can you do?" (Ignacious, SFG9).
AP students, on the other hand, did not note such a strong divide between AP and non-AP students and did not feel as though other students regarded them as arrogant. Instead, they felt they were prejudged to be intelligent, and therefore felt pressure to act in certain ways:
S1: Do the other people in your school who aren't enrolled in AP, do they look at you guys differently? Do they have like a preconception of you guys because you're in AP? S: Yes. You have to be like a total genius and when you ... like say if you use a slang term or something, they look at you like, "Hold on! You're an AP student! What are you doing saying that?" (Appleton, SFG1)
They also noted much less, if any, negative feelings. For example, one AP student noted:
Everyone gets along really well. S2: Yeah. S1: Like especially in our grade, everybody ... [there are] not that many people at all that don't get along with each other. Maybe like a handful, but other than that, we're all just like, "So, let's all go to the basketball game!" (Parks, SFG1)
In general, unlike IB students, AP students did not report feeling all that different or relegated to either a higher or a lower social status as a result of their participation.
Stress and Exhaustion
Both AP and IB students attributed adverse emotional consequences to their participation in their respective programs, but IB students reported anxiety and fatigue more frequently and with more intensity than AP students. IB students described the stress they experienced with statements such as, "Sometimes I get to the point where I feel I'm about to have a nervous breakdown, and I just start breathing in and out really slowly" (Ignacious, SFG4), "We're a walking emotional bomb" (Crayton Heights, SFG1), and "We're worse than like a Chevy truck, and they break down all the time!" (Ignacious, SFG1). IB students also expressed anxiety in statements such as, "We're, like, so Type-A, and compulsive about doing everything" (Crayton heights, SFG1), and:
S1: I just sit there, and you're like, "I'm supposed to be doing something. I should be doing something!" S2: You feel bad about not doing some thing. S1: Yeah. We all like do homework during lunch. You have to use every minute. (Crayton Heights, SFG1)
Finally, IB students more frequently reported experiencing intense fatigue as a result of the intense workload of the program than did AP students. As one IB student put it, "Six out of my seven days are home doing my homework until, like, four in the morning" (Crayton Heights, SFG2)
Three major areas of interest arose from the results of this study, all of which have broader implications for the field of gifted education: advanced students' perceptions of the improved classroom atmosphere of AP and IB courses over general education courses; the impact of the amount of time spent in homogeneously grouped classrooms on students' perceptions of difference and isolation from non-AP or non-IB peers; and the high level of fatigue and stress reported by many AP and IB students.
Improved Learning Environments
Chief among the non-academic benefits students attributed to their participation in AP and IB courses was the improved class atmosphere in AP and IB courses over general education courses. AP and IB students believed that they received better treatment from teachers when in AP and IB courses and enjoyed the increased homogeneity in academic achievement and interest among the students in these courses. These factors, students noted, contributed to their preference for AP and IB courses over general education courses and were consistent with previous findings on both AP and IB participation (Shaunessy, Suldo, Hardesety, & Shaffer, 2006; Taylor & Porath, 2006; Vanderbrook, 2006) and ability grouping (Adams-Byers, Whitsell, & Moon, 2004; Coleman & Cross, 1988; Cross, Coleman, & Stewart, 1993; Gross, 1997, 1998; Lando & Schneider, 1997; Manor-Bullock, Look, & Dixon, 1995; Wright & Leroux, 1997).
On one hand, it is comforting that AP and IB students perceived advanced classrooms to be socially comfortable and emotionally safe. On the other hand, AP and IB students reported dissatisfaction in general education classes due to their perception of these courses' low level of challenge and the teachers' need to focus on classroom management at the expense of instruction. It seems that many advanced students must wait until late in their high school careers to be challenged academically and in classroom environments in which they feel comfortable. Furthermore, the low level of challenge and low expectations that AP and IB students characterized as typical of many general education courses raise concerns over the fit of these courses for any and all students, indicating a need to focus on raising the level of challenge and expectations in all high school courses and to prepare teachers to differentiate curriculum and instruction to meet the needs of a broad range of learners in their classrooms.
Feelings of Difference from Peers
Interviewed AP and IB students identified several disadvantages to participation in advanced courses that were consistent with previous literature on ability grouping: feelings of difference and isolation from students who did not participate in advanced courses, the perception of unflattering stereotypes surrounding advanced students, and the high level of fatigue and stress that students experience as a result of taking advanced courses (Chan, 2004; Coleman & Cross, 1998; Cross, Coleman, & Stewart, 1993; Manor-Bullock, Look & Dixon, 1995; Swiatek, 1995, 2001, 2002; Swiatek & Dorr, 1998). Not surprisingly, the feelings of difference from peers who did not participate in AP and IB courses and feelings of stress that interviewed students reported were linked to the amount of time they spent in ability-grouped settings. IB students and students who took a heavy AP course load--that is, students whose schedules tended to be rigid and contained mostly ability-grouped courses--were more likely than students taking only one or two AP courses to report being negatively stereotyped by other students, feeling intellectually and motivationally different from general education peers, having fewer friends outside of their advanced courses, and experiencing stress and fatigue.
Interestingly, while many students indicated feeling uncomfortable about their participation in AP and IB courses around non-AP and non-IB students, many also reported feeling uncomfortable about their advanced academic abilities and interests when learning in heterogeneously grouped, general education classes. Regardless of the setting in which they learned, many advanced secondary students reported feeling discomfort as a result of their advanced academic abilities and interests when in the presence of peers who did not share these abilities and interests. The only time that many of these students reported feeling comfortable with their talents and others' perceptions of them, was when they were surrounded by students of like interest and ability--but this comfort disappeared as soon as they were among mixed-ability peers and attention was drawn to their abilities.
Whether the discomfort advanced students reported feeling resulted from their own feelings of difference from other students or from other students' treatment of them was unclear in this study. Some prior empirical and theoretical literature indicates that advanced students may perceive themselves as different from other students and view giftedness as a stigma, regardless of the veracity of this belief (Chan, 2004; Coleman & Cross, 1988; Cross, Coleman, & Stewart, 1993; Janos, Fung, & Robinson, 1985; Manor-Bullock, Look, & Dixon, 1995; Swiatek, 1995, 2001, 2002; Swiatek & Dorr, 1998). Other researchers and theorists suggest that the environments within our nation's public schools are unsupportive of and even hostile toward intellectuals (Howley, Pendarvis, & Howley, 1993; Schroeder-Davis, 1999). The degree to which the students in this study voiced their intellectual superiority to the interviewers may or may not reflect typical responses to peers. However, to the degree that it does, one can expect that the other students would react negatively.
The academic homogeneity of AP and IB classroom environments seemed to increase students' comfort while learning. This seems to support prior literature on the academic benefits to advanced students of learning in academically homogeneous settings (Adams-Byers, Whitsell, & Moon, 2004; Feldhusen & Saylor, 1990; Kulik & Kulik, 1992; Sowell, 1993; Wright & Leroux, 1997), as brain research indicates that we learn most effectively in emotionally safe environments (McGaugh, Introini-Collisioin, Cahill, Castellano, Dalmaz, Parent, & Williams, 1993; See Erlauer, 2003 for a review). However, it also indicates the need to develop programs for advanced secondary students that allow them to feel comfortable, both about their own abilities and the abilities of others, when interacting and working with all students in mixed-ability settings.
Most crucially, we need to develop high school cultures and classrooms in which the broad range of individual student talents and interests represented in the population are nurtured and supported, and in which motivation to learn and challenging curriculum are not privileges reserved for advanced students in advanced courses.
Sleep Sacrifice and Stress
The consistent reporting of sleep sacrifice by AP and IB students is of concern. Research suggests that sacrificing sleep has detrimental emotional and physical consequences that can impact student health and school performance, such as memory problems, attention lapses, slowed reaction time, depressed mood, irritability, decreases in divergent thinking, ill health, increased school absences, and poor grades (Carskadon, 1999; Dahl & Carskadon, 1995; Frederickson, Rhodes, Reddy, & Way, 2004; Randazzo, Muehlbach, Schweitzer, & Walsh, 1998; Roberts, Roberts, & Chen, 2001; Sadeh, Raviv, & Gruber, 2000). However, the results of this study indicate that stress and fatigue are conditions that most AP and IB students willingly accepted as intrinsic to the academic paths they were on--paths they saw leading directly to successful futures. It seems important, then, that high schools be aware of the stress and pressure that many of the students taking AP and IB experience and provide support for them, such as seminars on stress reduction, coping with stress, time management, and making thoughtful choices. It also seems worthwhile to examine the nature of the heavy workload within AP and IB courses to ensure that students are encountering rich, challenging curriculum, not simply "more work."
The strong advocacy for increased enrollment in AP courses and IB programs is based on convictions that advanced students need high levels of challenge and an opportunity to learn advanced content. However, the creation of any academic culture also has non-academic implications. In the case of AP and IB, many of those implications were identified by students in this study as positive. However, it is also clear that there may be negative implications that should be addressed with programs in general and with individual students.
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This study was conducted through the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, which is funded by the Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Act.
Requests for reprints should be sent to Dr. Regan Foust, 10488 Eastborne Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90024.
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|Author:||Foust, Regan Clark; Hertberg-Davis, Holly; Callahan, Carolyn M.|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2009|
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