The Experiences of Advanced
Placement and International
A Systematic Review of
Kelly Park1, Vera Caine1, and Randolph Wimmer1
Enriched high school curricula like the Advanced Placement and International
Baccalaureate Diploma programs are endorsed as “pathway programs” for
postsecondary-bound students. Program participation is perceived to have benefits
that appeal to a broad stakeholder group of universities, administrators, teachers,
students, and parents. In this systematic review, we aim to establish what is known
about program experiences by synthesizing pertinent qualitative research on student
participation. We identified 20 relevant articles that were published up to July 2013
in English and were listed in commonly accessible databases. Analytical themes
explored include the impact of peer relationships, the impact of the teacher–student
relationship, the conceptualization of success, the construction of self-image, and
perceived preparation for the future. Based on our findings, we offer critical insights
into the existing qualitative research and provide recommendations for future
Advanced Placement program, International Baccalaureate diploma program, qualitative
systematic review, student experience, pathway programs
1University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada
Kelly Park, Faculty of Education, Educational Policy Studies, University of Alberta, 7-104 Education
North, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada T6G 2G5.
Email: [email protected]
532258JOAXXX10.1177/1932202X14532258Journal of Advanced AcademicsPark et al.
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130 Journal of Advanced Academics 25(2)
The Advanced Placement1 (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB)2 diploma programs
are endorsed as “pathway programs” for postsecondary-bound students by their
governing organizations. As pathway programs, these enriched curricula are meant to
bridge the transition between high school and postsecondary studies by offering academically
prepared students a more rigorous high school experience. The College
Board describes that “AP helps hundreds of thousands of high school students achieve
their college dreams each year” and continues that “AP courses signal to admissions
officers that you’ve undertaken the most rigorous classes your high school has to
offer” and because of this “making it through an AP course and scoring successfully
on the related AP Exam, you can save on college expenses” (College Board, n.d.,
paras. 1, 3). Similarly, the International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO) characterizes
the diploma program as “an academically challenging and balanced programme
of education” that “prepares students . . . for success at university and life beyond” and
has “gained recognition and respect from the world’s leading universities” (IBO,
2012, p. 2).
The governing organizations describe the possible outcomes of program participation
in ways that appeal to a broad group of stakeholders, including students, parents,
teachers, school administrators, and postsecondary institutions. To better inform
stakeholders in their decision-making process related to these enriched curricula, we
undertook a systematic review. Individual studies have assessed specific phenomena
related to program participation, and a comprehensive summary of qualitative and
qualitative studies has been completed (Hertberg-Davis & Callahan, 2014), but no
systematic review exists that focuses on student experience specifically. As such, this
systematic review synthesizes qualitative literature related to program experiences
from AP and IB participation.
Research Question: What are reported experiences of participation in the AP or IB
diploma programs reported in qualitative research studies?
As a method, a systematic review “brings research closer to decision-making” by
synthesizing large pools of research data into a product that is intended to be a more
manageable source of information for policymakers, stakeholders, and practitioners
(Thomas & Harden, 2008, p. 2). This process allows for decisions to be based on the
totality of what is known about a specific phenomenon rather than findings of single
studies. More specifically, a qualitative systematic review (also known as qualitative
evidence synthesis) is a “method for integrating or comparing the findings from qualitative
studies through ‘themes’ or ‘constructs’ that lie in or across individual qualitative
studies” (Grant & Booth, 2009, p. 94). Qualitative research is concerned with how
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Park et al. 131
people interpret their social world and focuses on “social phenomena (interactions,
behaviours, etc.) in terms of the meanings people bring to them” (Pope & Mays, 2006,
p. 4). It is this ability to provide an in-depth examination of the experience or perceptions
of people that distinguishes qualitative from quantitative approaches and best
suits the research question.
There are distinctions that set a qualitative systematic review apart from other
reviews. The end goal of a qualitative systematic review is not to add together studies,
as per meta-analysis, but rather to broaden the understanding of the phenomenon in
question (Grant & Booth, 2009). In addition, a qualitative systematic review is a
“product of scientific enquiry,” and not equivalent to a basic literature review
(Sandelowski, 2007, p. 93). With this understanding of rigor, stringent processes to
guide a review are required. As established by Bronson and Davis (2012), a detailed
approach to the systematic review we undertook included the following: (a) a defined
research question, (b) a protocol stating the research question and the methods to be
used, (c) retrieval of the relevant literature and clear inclusion criteria for the review,
(d) extracting relevant information from the studies and systematically capturing relevant
information, (e) critically appraising every study meeting the inclusion criteria,
(f) synthesizing the data, and (g) preparation of a report of the findings in a language
that will be understandable and useful for practice or policy decision makers.
Inclusion criteria were developed using PICoS guidelines (Population characteristics,
phenomena of Interest, Context, and Study design) as a framework for selecting relevant
articles for inclusion (Sackett, 2000). These parameters included the following:
(a) The population studied must focus on student participation in either AP or IB
diploma programs, regardless of program completion. If a mixed sample is included
(e.g., AP, IB, and honors students) and AP or IB student results cannot be separated
from other programs, articles were excluded; (b) the phenomena of interest are experiences
that result from participation in AP or IB; (c) the context must produce a research
article that contains a sample and is not commentary, theory, or description; (d) the
study design must include data qualitative in nature, which is defined as having a focus
on naturalistic inquiry, reliance on the researcher as instrument of data collection, and
reports emphasizing narratives over numbers (Royse, Thyer, Padgett, & Logan, 2006).
Qualitative data can include observations, interviews, and document analysis that
involve written or transcribed responses, quotations, or descriptions (Patton, 2002).
Studies that purport to be qualitative but contain only minimal or no reporting of qualitative
data were excluded. Mixed-method studies in which qualitative and quantitative
data (including questionnaires posing open-ended questions) cannot be separated were
excluded. No studies were eliminated based on the authors’ assessment of quality. The
Consolidated Criteria for Reporting Qualitative Research (COREQ) guidelines were
used to report the contextual data of each included article to allow readers to independently
assess rigor of included studies (Tong, Morton, Howard, & Craig, 2009).
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132 Journal of Advanced Academics 25(2)
The findings of a systematic review are dependent on an exhaustive search of the literature
to ensure thematic saturation (Petticrew & Roberts, 2006). Search strategies
and data sources were developed in consultation with a librarian knowledgeable in the
methodology and a journal was kept to document all processes and decision making.
Limitations on this review required all articles to be in English.
The search strategy required the inclusion of at least one program name and a minimum
of one qualitative research term. The qualitative research terms were identified
through the use of an established database filter of qualitative research terms that was
modified to include additional terms that may produce qualitative results, but are technically
not qualitative methods (in recognition of varied methodological approaches
found in qualitative research), including “case study,” “hermeneutics,” “longitudinal
study,” “document analysis,” and “mixed method.” As a precaution against missing
improperly categorized articles, an additional parameter that specifically searched
article titles for the words “perception,” “perceive,” “view,” “experience,” or “belief”
was included as these key words located in the title of an article are suggestive of a
qualitative methodology. Databases unable to accommodate complex search parameters
were manually searched with the terms: “advanced placement,” “advanced placement
program,” “international baccalaureate,” and “international baccalaureate
program.” The search was undertaken in five steps: (a) complex databases searches,
(b) manually searched databases, (c) organizational websites, (d) Google Scholar
search, and (e) hand searching references found in the previous four steps.
Databases were searched from inception until July 2013. Electronic databases searched
included education and discipline-specific sources: ERIC, Education Research
Complete, Teacher Reference Center, CBCA Education, ProQuest Education Journals
(1988-current), Web of Science, SCOPUS, Child Development and Adolescent
Studies, Academic Search Complete, PsychInfo 1987 to present, ProQuest Dissertations
& Theses Full Text, ProQuest Dissertations & Theses: UK & Ireland, Educational
Research Abstracts Online, Education Index Retrospective, DOAJ: Directory of Open
Access Journals, and ERA: Education & Research Archive. Pope, Mays, and Popay
(2007) note that reviews focused on qualitative research, and those primarily within
the social sciences, often require searches beyond electronic databases to locate sufficient
data. As such, data sources included both published literature and “grey” or
unpublished literature, including “research reports, policy briefings and unpublished
dissertations” in addition to “lay groups, and a host of different types of information
available via the World Wide Web” (p. 3).
Database searches identified 1,394 results that were then exported to RefWorks
where 644 duplicates were excluded. The remaining 750 articles were exported to
Microsoft Excel where a further 50 duplicates were identified. Additional duplicates
likely existed but were not excluded as duplicate if the abstract, title, and primary
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Park et al. 133
authors were significantly different. These 700 citations were then evaluated against
the inclusion criteria described by Sandelowski and Barroso (2007). We undertook a
progressive evaluation of elements of each study against the inclusion requirements
until all retrieved
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