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A Guide To High School Curriculums in Shanghai

When you pick a school abroad you want to find the one that best sets your child up for success. Here’s a breakdown of the major college prep curriculums in Shanghai — made simple by the experts.
Last updated: 2018-02-02

The three most prominent programs that aim to best prepare students for college courses are Advanced Placement (AP), A Level, and International Baccalaureate (IB), of the American, British and ‘International' tradition. There's much debate out there on "who does it best" so we sat down with school leaders to find the nuances of each as well as dispel common misconceptions, to make it just a smidge easier to find the right school for your family.

Important to note from the start that all international schools are influenced by country specific standards and teaching practices, a commonality among these three programs is the goal to stay consistent across borders.

1. Advanced Placement (AP)

AP courses were created in the U.S. by College Board (the same people who brought us the SATs) in the time of poodle skirts. Today, over 30% of Americans will take at least one in their high school career. These classes are meant to be a gateway to college-style learning, with success measured by one external assessment at the end of the semester. Here in Shanghai, in practice that's once a year at schools like Shanghai American School who have a variety of these AP courses; though technically you don't have to enroll in an AP course to take the test.

A big perk of AP is if you score a 4 or higher on the exam (scale: 1-5) you can get departmental credit in an American college, meaning if you score 4-5 in AP English, you can skip English Comp your Freshman year (though, important to note scores are not necessarily important for college admission, like the SAT).

Think of AP as the buffet option—it's a set of 38 courses to pick from, so students can get real deep into their area of interest or shop around like liberal art basement dwellers. In Shanghai, some schools allow ninth graders to take AP courses/exams but it's most common to start in 10th grade. Typically there are limits due to an AP course's inherent rigorous nature. For example at SAS, you're limited to one in 10th grade; but can choose to take more in grades 11 and 12 (years 12 and 13 in UK-talk). Here there are prerequisites for taking certain AP courses (like for calculus, you have to take pre-calc), but there's no general aptitude test to qualify to take them.

"AP provides single year courses available in a large number of subjects, which allows for highly customizable pathways so that students are not locked in and have the flexibility to design programs that fit them individually. Unlike the others (IB is a two-year course), you have options, you can take one year of computer science and if you don't like it you can change the next year; it's a flexible choice and very American in that way."Dr. Benjamin Lee, High School Principal SAS

Key Points:

  • Opportunity to gain college credit
  • A set of 38 courses, but schools don't always offer all 38
  • One year courses can allow for more experimentation than 2-year program
  • Measured by one external exam
  • Recommended for good test takers and independent workers, and those who have a strong desire to go to an American university (though most American universities also consider A Levels and IB competitive).
  • Common criticism: Due to student choice in courses, can lack a "well-rounded" quality, and does not include components in social responsibility

Some international schools in Shanghai offering AP

Browse all secondary schools in Shanghai offering AP

2. A Level

Advanced Level or A Level is a qualification where students choose courses (also can be written: A level) they can take in their last two years of high school (a period often referred to as "Sixth Form"). It's the most common curriculum in England and has a well-respected reputation around the world. A Level is a bit rarer in Shanghai and only in international schools that've adopted the British system. With A Level, there are no specific requirements for subjects of study, the idea being students will have the ability to focus on their area of interest (buffet-style courses similar to AP), which is aided by students taking on fewer courses (typically 3-4 A Levels that span two years).

One school in Shanghai well known for offering A Levels is Harrow International School Shanghai, where students applying for entry into the Sixth Form must take assessments in the subjects they wish to study at A Level. From there they can choose from 19 courses (though the full list has more), either specialize by (for example) taking 3 sciences, or take on a wider range of diverse courses, like mixing the humanities and math. Here there's more freedom to pursue passions, and typically students pick courses with their desired future degree in mind, so their experience is tailored to fit them, and not the other way around. One criticism of A Level (similar to IB) is that two year courses can make students feel they're locked in to a specific path, while others may find this to be the advantage; to go to university having had significant coursework in their desired field of study.

A Level courses are created and assessed by UK based exam boards (Harrow pulls from Edexcel and Cambridge), then in the classroom teachers have freedom to deliver the course how they see fit. Assessments are still external like AP, but vary from course to course. A Level has changed since their creation in the 1950's, but the most current grading system ranges from A* through E (the A* as the highest score added in 2010) according to percentage scored on annual exams. A Level remains the most common qualification for university acceptance in the UK, but is also accepted by universities around the world, and considered as rigorous as AP and IB by U.S. colleges. British universities don't run on the credit system, but American colleges are also willing to convert A Level courses to college credit like AP. This is dependent on the school.

"A frequent misconception is that A Levels are perceived as a ‘weaker' qualification by American universities, they're not. The US-UK Fulbright Commission publishes a table on their website to help potential applicants average their A-Level qualifications into a grade point average (GPA). From that table, it can be clearly seen that an A* at A Level is the equivalent of a 4.0 GPA scale... the principal case is, with A Levels, the programme of study can be tailored individually to each student, rather than molding the student to fit the qualification." —Mark Batten, Head of Sixth Form, Harrow

Key Points:

  • Students must test into the A Level program (where it's offered in Shanghai)
  • Allows students to ‘specialize' in areas of interest
  • Most common qualification for university acceptance in the UK, but also accepted around the world
  • Students are expected to lead learning in the classroom and are encouraged to be critical
  • Can choose from multiple courses like AP, but A Level courses last 2 years
  • Common criticism: similar to AP, due to specificity of courses, can lack the "well-rounded" aspect of IB depending on student course selection

Some international schools in Shanghai offering A Level

Browse all secondary schools in Shanghai offering A Level

3. International Baccalaureate (IB)

IB is the youngest curriculum on this short list, established in 1968 in Switzerland to transcend borders, and solve the problem of disruption of schooling for kids whose parents worked abroad—all thought up by teachers working in the International School of Geneva. How, why, and by whom IB was created lends to its underlying philosophy as the ‘international' curriculum and declaration to create well-rounded students/global citizens who are challenged in and out of the classroom. Still, in a way IB creates the most structure of the options listed here, as a two-year diploma with set courses over 6 disciplines: Language Acquisition, Studies in Language and Literature, Individuals and Society, Mathematics, the Arts, and Science.

Unlike AP and A-levels, IB is made of several external exams which range from projects to presentations to essays. A large component of assessment comes from a final 4,000 word ‘extended essay,' as well as a compulsory course in Theory of Knowledge (a sort of light philosophy course), and a personal "Creativity Activity Service" project, where students pursue a long-term plan for socially conscious personal activity separate from their regular academic pursuits. To earn the diploma, in addition to these requirements students must take 6 courses. These are separated into "Higher Level" and "Standard Level" courses (typically students will take 3 and 3, though some take 4 and 2), and span for two years. The maximum score in each is a 7. In some schools in Shanghai, it's possible to just take a few IBs without earning the diploma, but IB was as a set program of courses.

Here in Shanghai, virtually all international schools offer IB in some capacity but the Western International School of Shanghai (WISS) is the only school which offers IB in its full continuum including the rarer CP programs where children can start out in the Primary Years Program and continue to the Middle Years Program, and for grades 11 and 12, students can choose either the full Diploma Program (DP) or access the newest IB program, the Career-Related Program (CP). The IB DP is accepted in college applications worldwide, and similar to A Levels, certain U.S. universities will convert IB courses (with scores of 6 and up) into college credits.

"It's interesting to talk with parents who want their children to stay with their national system while abroad and those who prefer an international education even when their national school is down the street. Living abroad offers a family many choices...With IB's commitment to an international education for all students, global contexts are infused, allowing students to grapple with real-life learning while developing higher-level thinking skills." —Doreen Garrigan, Primary School Principal WISS

[Ed's Note: Ms. Garrigan was selected by the IBO headquarters last year to contribute to how IB standards are incorporated into school culture. You can read more here.]

Key Points:

  • IB curriculum attempts to create well-rounded students through six disciplines and service outside the classroom
  • The IB also includes social and philosophical components via Theory of Knowledge, Global Perspectives, and Creativity/Art/Service course requirements
  • Multiple exams, including various projects and a research paper meant to foster critical thinking
  • Common criticism: two-year courses keep students locked in, some students complain about not being able to specialize in subjects (because of course requirements) and the very demanding time requirements

Some international schools in Shanghai offering IB

Browse all secondary schools in Shanghai offering A Level


So...which curriculum is best?

It's apples and oranges, all of these programs offer challenging courses to high school students. If you're still unsure, first you may want to consider where your child will want to attend college (U.S., Australia, U.K., here in China?), from there think about the learning style that would best suit your child. You can also check out this article from last year covering basic info on the international schools of Shanghai. After that, here are some questions you can ask while you're shopping around:

Questions to Consider:

  • Is the school selective when it comes to programs for senior students?
  • Are the scores from previous course assessments available?
  • Does a school offer a combination of programs, or just one?
  • What universities have previous graduates attended (or which countries)?
  • My child is interested in the areas of x, what speciality courses do you have in this vein?
  • What's your school's alumni university retention rate?
  • If my child does not want to take AP, IB, or A Levels, do you have alternative diploma/certificate options?