AP and IB: Who Thrives, Who Struggles and at What Cost?


USF professors receive prestigious federal award to study academic success and mental health among IB and AP students.



By Mary Beth Erskine

USF.edu News Writer


TAMPA, Fla. (July 2, 2010) – As college admissions standards rise, so does the pressure on students to participate in rigorous curriculum as early in their high school careers as possible.


And students are doing that across the country, signing up in staggering numbers for Advanced Placement courses and International Baccalaureate programs.


Last year the College Board, which administers the AP program, reported that near 800,000 public high school seniors from the Class of 2009, representing 26.5 percent of the class, took an AP exam at some point in high school. Statistics from the IB Organization show equally explosive increases in the number of students enrolled in IB programs and taking IB exams.


But what is the toll on the mental health of these students? How do they cope with the stress of demanding coursework on top of the normal pressures that come with just being a teenager? And what determines whether a student will thrive or struggle in challenging college prep programs?


Two University of South Florida professors from the College of Education aim to find out.


Shannon Suldo, associate professor of school psychology, and Elizabeth Shaunessy, associate professor of gifted education, recently received a highly competitive grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Educational Sciences (IES). The three-year, $1-million grant will enable them to conduct the first large-scale examination of a population of students they say has been greatly under studied.


Suldo and Shaunessy believe that state governments are putting increasing emphasis on student participation in AP and IB programs. Implementation, however, is ahead of any awareness of the effect on students’ social and emotional functioning.


“Students in rigorous programs like AP and IB not only face typical adolescent stressors but also the demands of college-level curricula,” said Suldo. “Our study will focus on the extent this stress affects them and how well they are able to respond to it, especially in light of the fact that they are under intense pressure to score well on tests that will soon affect their school's ratings by the Florida Department of Education.”


The professors will also consider how these students' academic achievement – particularly on AP and IB exams – might relate to the strategies they use to cope with the demands they experience during the full range of their high school years.

Suldo and Shaunessy have been studying this segment of students since 2004 but in smaller populations. Through that earlier work, they have determined that IB students use unique coping strategies such as purposeful time and task management and keeping their problems in perspective in order to manage stress, and that students with better mental health make more frequent use of these types of strategies.

In their current project, the professors will expand their scope to see if these previous findings hold up in larger, more diverse samples of students from different cultural, socioeconomic and geographic backgrounds. They also will investigate whether additional factors exist that predict which students will excel in AP and IB programs during high school, as well as factors that place AP and IB students at greater risk. The goal is to eventually provide the foundation needed to develop appropriate educational training materials that could be used to benefit students.

Using a three-stage approach, the researchers will conduct focus groups with AP and IB students, educators, parents and national leaders to determine these stakeholders’ perceptions of what students find stressful and how they cope. The second phase will include an analysis of self-reported data from 600 AP-IB students in order to develop valid surveys of AP and IB students’ unique stressors and coping strategies. The third phase will focus on the collection of data on stress, coping, engagement in learning and other issues from 2,000 students in geographically diverse AP-IB programs with substantial student diversity.

IES is recognized as a highly competitive arm of federal funding. Applications undergo a rigorous peer review process and only a small number get funding.


“We’re so excited about receiving this prestigious federal award in part because it provides external recognition of the significance of our line of research, including the importance of studying a unique population,” said Suldo. “The funds from this grant will permit us to work closely with our school district partners throughout the state.”


Mary Beth Erskine can be reached at 813-974-6993.