'The IB must show the qualities it demands of students'

The International Baccalaureate needs to be honest with teachers and students over grading controversy, says David James

David James

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The International Baccalaureate is facing a defining moment in its short but eventful life.

Small in scale but lofty in ambition, the IB has, since its foundation in Geneva in 1968, been committed to creating a “better and more peaceful world” through education. To some of its critics, its mission statement has as much academic rigour as the hippy-dippy period it was born in: full of right-on sloganeering, and closer in sentiment to old advertisements for soft drinks than a serious academic programme. 

But, for those of us who have taught one of its many subjects, the IB’s Diploma is a wonderful and precious thing. It offers depth and breadth, with students studying three higher-level and three standard-level subjects. Students who take their May examinations will have taken two-year courses in literature, mathematics, modern languages, science and the humanities. 

There are other aspects to it, too, such as a compulsory community-based programme, a critical-thinking course and the requirement to do an extended essay. In many ways, it is more than the sum of its parts, offering students a rich and genuinely diverse education. 

The International Baccalaureate is academically demanding

Idealistic though its values are, it has survived because at its core it is academically demanding and free from government interference, and it has seen an admirable stability in grades, which has resulted in zero grade inflation since its inception. A-level teachers in England will read that last sentence and weep. 

But, despite occasional moments when it seemed that the IB would see significant growth, its numbers have remained relatively modest, with about 160,000 students around the world “graduating” with the Diploma every year. 

There are many reasons for this. The IB insists on a lengthy accreditation process before a school can offer any one of its four programmes. Teachers have to be trained over several days. And it comes with an annual fee. Such costs, both in time and money, add strain to schools already under pressure. And that was before Covid-19

But the IB now finds itself in the unenvied position of being exposed on a world stage, with serious questions being asked about the reliability of its most recent set of grades. Outrage began to grow – and to be made public – as soon as the results were made available to schools on 6 July. 

Anger over this year's IB grades

However, disquiet among IB teachers had started several months before, when the IB announced that it would employ examiners to mark all internal assessments.

The scale of such a process was daunting. IB teachers spend a considerable amount of their time working with students over two years, to guide them through numerous pieces of coursework: it is one of the strengths of the Diploma that it combines high-stakes examinations with a range of internally completed work. 

To give you a sense of what is involved in this coursework, consider just one subject. In English, each student will complete a recorded individual oral examination, an essay of 1,500 words (with a title written by the student) and an individual presentation to class. Each takes up a considerable amount of preparation and delivery, and arriving at a mark involves applying the assessment criteria carefully, followed by a protracted moderation process. Much of this suddenly – abruptly – switched to external examiners.

To train these examiners, remotely, in marking such an overwhelming amount of material seemed ill-advised and unnecessary: why not combine predicted grades with its own rank order, as the UK awarding bodies will do? Or use other pre-existing measures to help determine final outcomes? Or why not just trust the teachers’ professional judgement, combining moderation, standardisation, and (if appropriate) historical centre data to arrive at the final grades? 

Quite quickly, schools started to see that whatever process or algorithm was being used by the IB, it was throwing up significant discrepancies: high-ability students were being awarded grades considerably below what their teachers knew they would have been awarded had they done the examinations, with many component marks bewilderingly adrift of internally assessed work. 

Engulfed by controversy

The hashtag #ibscandal began to trend on Twitter; an online petition seeking “justice” was organised, and it now has more than 20,000 signatories.

So great were these variations that publications as diverse as Wired and the Financial Times began to report on perceived failings. A new indignity for an organisation that prides itself on scrupulous assessment standards came with the announcement that Ofqual planned to investigate whether the IB had followed its own rules

With this level of unwanted scrutiny into its internal proceedings, the IB has started to make concessions to schools. But it feels reactive, done under duress, grudgingly asking schools to work harder to justify their complaints, and with little public acknowledgement that the processes that it employed were unsuited to this unique set of challenges. 

The IB needs to do more: it needs to embody and live out the qualities of its own Learner Profile, which forms the bedrock of the community it seeks to bring together in one shared vision.

The IB, more than ever, needs to show that even global organisations can exhibit the qualities it seeks to inculcate in young people: it needs to be a risk-taker and set up a process of internal inquiry, become more knowledgeable about its processes, think about the consequences of its actions, be principled in how it acts now, and, during this process of reflection, be open-minded and willing to change. 

Above all, it needs to communicate openly and honestly with teachers and students, show it cares about them, and seek to rectify the mistakes made. 

Because, unless the IB lives by the qualities it rightly advocates, it faces an uncertain future. In a world that needs the idealism the IB was founded on more than ever, that would be an educational catastrophe. 

David James is deputy head (academic) at a leading UK independent school. He tweets as @drdavidajames

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