But some districts, shooting for something they say is even better, have turned to the Geneva-based International Baccalaureate program in an effort to push students further.
High schools in Hauppauge and Sag Harbor will offer IB this fall, joining seven other districts that have it in place. The Connetquot district, currently at the start of the lengthy certification process, hopes to begin its program in September 2013.
Experts and proponents say the IB high school curriculum gives students an edge because of its global perspective and rigor. Many students strive for the coveted IB diploma, which requires completion of at least seven advanced courses in their junior and senior years, including mathematics, science, English literature and history.
The courses emphasize essays and oral presentations, and a 4,000-word paper and community service are mandated.
The curriculum better prepares teenagers for college, IB's adherents say, and many universities that were reluctant to grant course credit for IB have come around.
John Gratto, Sag Harbor superintendent, said he was drawn to the program in part because he believes the state's Regents diploma represents a "minimal competency."
"We wanted to challenge our students to be among the very best-educated in the world," he said. "The school board looked at this from every angle . . . and decided it was a good move to make, that it will enhance the writing, thinking and problem-solving ability of our students."
IB is in 3,460 schools, serving about a million students in 143 countries. In the United States, 1,370 schools offer it -- double the number in 2006, according to IB.
Jeffrey Beard, IB's U.S.-born director general, came to New York City in January to promote the program, telling a group of educators that it transforms schools.
IB was born in Switzerland in 1968 for the purpose of educating the children of diplomats and business people, but Beard said that, with its rapid spread in public schools, it's no longer reserved for the elite. Any child can do well in the program, he said, describing it as "not hard, but challenging."
What critics say
Still, IB is controversial.
Some taxpayers point to the cost, which is well above that of the AP program. Patricia Sullivan-Kriss, Hauppauge superintendent, said the district worked hard to assuage the fears of some 200 residents who attended a "tense" public meeting on the matter in March 2011.
"We had to put forth the answers as to how we were going to handle this fiscally and instructionally," she said. "And I'm sure, to be honest, that we satisfied many, but probably not all. Until we have our first graduating class, people are going to have questions."
Hauppauge has already paid a $9,500 candidate fee plus $8,200 in conference costs to start. Like all participating districts, it also must pay a $10,400 annual fee as long as it offers the program, in addition to teacher training costs as courses are added. Districts are not charged for offering AP courses or exams, officials said.
A small but vocal group of opponents from across the country say their concerns run deeper than money. They're troubled about IB's ties to the United Nations.
Until 1976, the program was funded in part by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. It remains a part of the UN's Economic and Social Council.
Critics are uncomfortable with what they say is IB's progressive bent and call the program humanist, saying it places too little emphasis on the American perspective. Further, some districts aren't upfront about costs, they say.
The New Hampshire House of Representatives recently tried to ban IB, saying, essentially, that its schools couldn't be governed by an overseas entity. The House-passed measure was defeated in the Senate in May.
"It's elitist," said Lisa McLoughlin, a 35-year resident of Bayville and one of IB's best-known critics nationally. "It divides communities and it should be relegated to private schools."
McLoughlin started investigating IB when it came to her district, Locust Valley, in 2004. She details her grievances on truthaboutib.com and serves as the site's administrator.
"It has a social justice agenda," she said in a recent interview, adding that IB's proprietary nature leaves parents in the dark about the specifics of its curriculum.
What supporters say
But students who have taken IB courses said they value the wider perspective it promotes.
"I think that there is no shame in broadening your view of the world and becoming more global and an inquisitive learner," said Sophie Torres, 18, a Long Beach High School graduate. "That was one of the things that was very different and enlightening in the IB experience."
Jay Mathews, a Washington Post education reporter, wrote that truthaboutib.com's "raging paranoia about IB being a threat to American values and U.S. sovereignty is completely divorced from reality," though he praised the website for its fairness in other respects.
Mathews' book, "Supertest: How the International Baccalaureate Can Strengthen Our Schools," lauds IB for its rigor, calling it "slightly better" than AP because the exams delve deeper and because of the 4,000-word essay required for those pursuing the IB diploma.
He said, too, that with the spread of IB, AP is changing its curriculum and testing format to become more like it.
AP, run by the Manhattan-based College Board, has long been criticized for having too wide a sweep and for relying heavily on multiple-choice questions in its assessments. A smattering of private schools have dropped the program as a result.
Academically acclaimed Scarsdale High School started phasing out AP five years ago in favor of a more focused, locally designed curriculum.
Auditi Chakravarty, vice president for AP curriculum, instruction and assessment for the College Board, said the changes in AP -- which result in fewer multiple-choice questions and more essays -- stem from criticism from the science community and teachers who say the courses cover too much, not from the success of IB.
International Baccalaureate has "a great model," Chakravarty said, but she noted there isn't one right approach to learning. The two can coexist, she said.
Indeed, many schools keep both programs, at least in the beginning. Sag Harbor will continue with AP but will reassess, depending on what students want, officials said.
West Islip, which started with IB in the 2010-11 school year, will also keep Advanced Placement.
"We allow the students to make their own academic choices," IB coordinator Jim Gilmartin said.
Both programs are stellar, Mathews said, but it will take years for AP to make the same strides as the IB. It can't easily add one of IB's most valuable components -- the extended essay -- because it would place too much of a burden on teachers, he said.
"That would require a real sea change," Mathews said, adding that "people will still be jazzed by IB."
As for another of IB's signature requirements, the famed and dreaded "Theory of Knowledge" course -- which asks students to analyze what they know and how they came to know it -- AP has nothing like it, he said.
Some districts shy away from IB because it calls for wholesale change, said William Stroud, assistant director of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education at Columbia University's Teachers College. He started the Baccalaureate School for Global Education in Queens in 2002 with the goal that every student would earn an IB diploma.
The results so far
IB is the "best educational platform schools can work from," he said, in part because it forces many students to learn time management. "Every school should be doing it."
But IB can be grueling.
Somalia Williamson, 18 and a Long Beach graduate, considered dropping out of the program after two of her peers left because of the workload.
"I ended up doing homework until 2 or 3 in the morning and then taking a shower and getting up just a few hours later to go and do the same thing over again the next day," she said.
Williamson, an aspiring actor headed to the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, College and Conservatory of the Performing Arts in New York and Los Angeles, is glad she stayed. The English classes that once overwhelmed her are proving surprisingly useful.
"With acting, you have to be able to understand the literature they are giving you to actually become that character," she said. "It's helped me read between the lines."
Lorenzo Nunez, 18 and a Locust Valley graduate, said IB provided him with tools that he wouldn't have gotten in any other program.
"It makes you dive into subjects and just keeps pushing you and pushing you," said Nunez, who is headed for the Rochester Institute of Technology. "They give you tons of work but they know you can accomplish it if you put in the time."
David Weiss, the superintendent at Long Beach, said IB is more accessible to a wider range of students and it pushes top performers beyond where AP could take them.
But it takes "a full-school commitment to do IB," he said. "You need everybody to buy in."
In Rockville Centre, 11th graders at South Side High School had just one option for English starting last school year: IB Language and Literature, Higher Level, the toughest course around.
Principal Carol Burris recently said the move was a success.
The school's most-struggling students were targeted early for intervention, and 250 of the 251 juniors passed the English Regents in the spring, an achievement officials tied to exposure to IB. Even with the school's traditionally high passing rate, this was unprecedented.
"One thing that was remarkable was that all of our special education students passed the Regents," Burris said. "That was the first time that has ever occurred."
WHAT IS IB?
The International Baccalaureate is a nonprofit educational foundation based in Geneva, Switzerland. Established in 1968, it is aimed at children from ages 3 to 19. IB has elementary, middle school and high school offerings.
The number of schools in the United States offering IB programs has doubled since 2006. Many students strive for an IB diploma, which requires completion of seven courses, including the "Theory of Knowledge" course, a 4,000-word essay and community service. Scores on final exams must be strong enough to amass the number of points required for the diploma. Students can take individual IB classes and receive certificates if they score well enough on final exams.
IB SCHOOLS ON LONG ISLAND
Districts that offer IB and the year they received their authorization:
The Commack school district offers the IB program in its middle and high schools. The other eight districts offer the two-year high school program.
-- JO NAPOLITANO
SOURCE: The International Baccalaureate educational foundation