Many students participate in activities that require them to develop expertise through self-directed research or intense study of a topical area and then demonstrate their learning by participating in a competition. Some academic and research competitions are geared toward participation by teams of students; others are designed for individual participants. The goal of most academic competitions is to provide a competitive outlet for students who are particularly talented or interested in an area or subject by encouraging them to engage in problem-solving activities that are complex and challenging. Examples of these types of programs include science fairs, mathematics and science Olympiads, the Intel and Duracell/National Science Teachers Association science competitions, inventors’ competitions, and bridge-building competitions. External judging is usually a component of these programs. Coaching and mentorship are important aspects of the preparation students receive.
Critics of such competitions cite disparities in the resources available to students and the negative aspects of encouraging competitiveness instead of the cooperation that is more in keeping with the way modern science is conducted in the field. Some worry about the lack of participation by students who have the ability to undertake such work but have not had opportunities in their schools to demonstrate this ability. Thus, these critics say, the competitions reward those who already have access to greater resources and opportunities. Proponents cite the unique opportunity these activities provide for students to engage in problem-solving activities not typically available through classroom curricula.
Students and schools differ in many ways that are important to teaching and learning. Consequently, no single course structure or approach, including those as widely used as AP and IB, can meet the educational needs of every high school student who is ready for advanced study. For example, not all schools have adequate resources (physical, financial, or human) to teach high-quality AP courses, and implementing IB requires a level of schoolwide commitment that not all schools are prepared or able to undertake. Additionally, the goals and objectives of individual schools vary in accordance with their local communities’ educational values and beliefs. State educational standards that describe what students who are educated in the state should know and be able to do at particular grade levels play an important role in determining what is taught and the way instruction and curriculum are organized. This variation underscores the need for alternatives to the AP and IB programs.