College & Workforce Readiness

Cambridge Academic Program Makes Inroads in U.S.

By Caralee J. Adams — December 03, 2013 8 min read
Sophomore Christine Williams, center with glasses, and several classmates gather in a hallway at Federal Way High School to analyze a short story for an English class assignment. The course is part of the Cambridge curriculum offered at the public school in Washington state and a growing number of other U.S. schools.
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For more than 800 years, the University of Cambridge has been educating students on its stately and historic campus in the heart of England. But the esteemed British institution’s reach goes much farther, and it’s now working aggressively to expand a menu of precollegiate offerings in U.S. schools.

The university owns and operates the Cambridge International Exams, part of a nonprofit division that provides academic courses of study in various subjects with a focus on promoting critical thinking, in-depth analysis, and strong writing skills. It currently serves more than 9,000 schools in 160 countries and students ages 5 to 19.

Cambridge is still a relatively small player in the United States, especially in comparison with the ubiquitous Advanced Placement program. But it has seen rapid growth in recent years. It now provides college-preparatory curricula for about 230 U.S. schools at the elementary and secondary levels in 27 states, up from 80 schools in 2009. This year, 50,000 Cambridge exams were taken by high school students here, a 50 percent increase from 2012.

Some districts seem eager to embrace the prestigious Cambridge brand in hopes it will give students an edge in college admissions and readiness. Last spring, for instance, the Miami-Dade County district in Florida announced plans to expand use of the Cambridge program from 16 to 70 campuses.

“We have a very international community,” said Robert D. Strickland, the director of school choice and parental options for the 345,000-student district. “This program is recognized on the world level. [Parents] like to know that and feel that their child can compete on the global level.”

Analyzing and Synthesizing

While most programs are in public high schools, Cambridge offers curricula for elementary and middle schools, too. At all levels, students are assessed on their progress at year’s end, with high school courses culminating in extensive exams that can translate into college credit.

Michael J. O’Sullivan, who joined Cambridge International Exams last spring as the new chief executive officer, has high hopes for its foray into the U.S. market. He notes that the nation’s decentralized education system and emphasis on school choice make it attractive. And he’s also making the case that the Cambridge program dovetails closely with the Common Core State Standards adopted by all but four states.

“I’m really excited about our prospects in the U.S.A.,” he said. “As I see it, it’s not just another market for Cambridge International Examinations. ... One day, it will be another home for us.”

Cambridge’s work at the precollegiate level dates back more than a century. But Cambridge International Exams, a division of Cambridge Assessment, only got its start in this country in 1995.

The Cambridge approach is designed to be rigorous and deep. In history courses, for example, rather than memorize dates and take multiple-choice tests, students dig into research through primary sources, develop arguments, and present their findings. End-of-course exams require analyzing and synthesizing information in a writing-intensive format.

Math and science instruction is often integrated to allow students to apply what they’ve learned across courses. A math course might include various topics, and, in some courses, teachers can customize the syllabus to choose a combination of pure math, statistics, and mechanics to build a path to the exam, based on the needs and interests of students.

At the elementary and middle school levels, the Cambridge program is focused on English/language arts, math, and science. At high school, however, it offers some 70 courses, including biology, economics, and world literature.

For high school students, the Cambridge exams last six to eight hours over a few days. Multiple-choice questions are limited, with a focus instead on essays, analysis, and even hands-on science labs included in assessments.

Despite the increased Cambridge presence in U.S. schools, it is dwarfed by the AP program, which gave 3.4 million exams to U.S. public high school students last year. And while Cambridge operates in more schools globally than the International Baccalaureate program—which is seen as another competitor—Cambridge falls well short of the nearly 1,500 U.S. high schools now served by the IB. Still, the United States is the fastest-growing market for Cambridge, according to Mr. O’Sullivan, the CEO.

Angela R. Rainey, a senior at North Marion High School in Citra, Fla., said she likes that Cambridge exams award points for demonstrating knowledge through writing, rather than deducting credit for missing multiple-choice questions.

“If you do the work and study hard, you aren’t dreading the exams,” according to Ms. Rainey, who says Cambridge courses have been much harder for her than dual-enrollment classes she takes from a local community college.

Dana C. Spencer, who coordinates the program at North Marion, said about 300 of the school’s 1,240 students participate in Cambridge. It can be a difficult transition for some 9th graders, she said, with some initial “weeding out.” Still, most students stay with the program, she said, and teachers spend extra time helping them before and after school.

“It does pay off,” she said. “Our students have really responded.”

In Florida, students can earn up to 45 college credits for their high school performance on Cambridge exams. A Cambridge diploma credential also qualifies a student for a state-funded college scholarship.

Examine the Claims

To become a Cambridge school, schools must pay a registration fee and annual membership dues to have access to online materials and training. There’s also a charge for each exam. The high-school-level exams typically run between $78 and $86 per student, per subject. The norm is for students to take three or four.

But before outsourcing curriculum, Jack Schneider, an assistant professor of education at the College of the Holy Cross in Worchester, Mass., cautions that school officials closely examine the claims of programs. Cambridge, in particular, has a prestige factor that needs to align with the merits of the program, notes Mr. Schneider, who has researched college-prep curricula.

“It might look better than it really is. What are people really excited about? Are students actually learning more, or are parents excited to have a branded program?” he said.

A 2011 study of the Cambridge program in the United States, published in the College & University Journal, said students generally described the program as motivating and stimulating, and more challenging than other curricula. Teachers said the courses prompted students to form their own opinions and gain real-world application of subject knowledge.

Meanwhile, a 2011 case study focused on the academic achievement of freshmen at Florida State University who had successfully earned a Cambridge diploma credential. The research, published in the Journal of College Admissions, suggests the program may offer some academic benefits later on, but it was not an experimental study.

How schools choose to offer the Cambridge program varies. Some high schools have students take a full schedule of Cambridge courses, while others give students the choice to take a class or two in their areas of strength. If students take a certain number of exams in various subjects, they can earn a Cambridge diploma credential.

In Arizona, Jamie D. Sheldahl, the associate superintendent for the Yuma Union High School District, said he thought there might be some resistance to bringing in a program designed in another country.

“We intentionally downplayed that it was British,” he said. “We did play up that Cambridge was internationally normed and the largest provider of education in the world.”

The Cambridge program is most prevalent in Florida, but there also is a concentration in Tennessee and Arizona, among other states.

In the Miami-Dade district, the Cambridge course of study has been offered for several years.

The decision to offer Cambridge more widely in Miami-Dade, which also offers AP and IB programs, is part of the school system’s strategy to compete with charter schools and attract families with a menu of options, according to district officials.

In the Federal Way district, just outside Seattle, Cambridge programs are offered in primary, middle, and high schools. While two high schools in the 21,000-student district have the AP program, Federal Way High School, where 60 percent of students are eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch, only uses Cambridge for its college-prep curriculum.

Students have the choice of taking a single Cambridge class or getting a Cambridge diploma, which requires passing six exams. In the 1,500-student high school, 300 earned a Cambridge diploma last year and 2,200 Cambridge exams were taken by students in grades 9-12.

“It’s really prepared our students for college,” said Chelsea Gallagher, the school’s Cambridge coordinator. “You can’t do minimal work. It requires you to think critically.”

Diving Deeper

When Cambridge was first introduced there eight years ago, it was seen as another avenue for students who weren’t in AP or IB and who were looking for a curriculum that was more hands-on and focused on problem-solving, said Diana Graddon, a program specialist with the district.

This is the third year that the 10,650-student Yuma district has had Cambridge as the core, default curriculum for all 9th and 10th graders. The district kept AP as the college-prep curriculum for juniors and seniors. At the end of the school year, about 40 percent of students who complete the Cambridge coursework take the official end-of-course Cambridge exams. But Mr. Sheldahl said he’s not troubled by this.

“Access to the curriculum ... is the critical piece,” he said. “The actual assessment piece is secondary.”

The district has provided tutoring to help students handle the increased rigor of the Cambridge approach, and early indications show performance is improving, especially among struggling students, he said.

“We are finding it’s paying dividends,” Mr. Sheldahl said. “The curriculum is engaging and relevant. It’s built in that you have to dive deeper.”

Special coverage on the alignment between K-12 schools and postsecondary education is supported in part by a grant from the Lumina Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the December 04, 2013 edition of Education Week as Cambridge Academic Program Makes Inroads in U.S. Schools


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