Why the IB cancelling exams leaves us with questions

International Baccalaureate's decision to call off exams gives schools some clarity – but not enough, says David James

David James

International Baccalaureate 2021: Why the cancellation of UK exams leaves many questions

The cancel culture continues among awarding bodies. Yesterday, the International Baccalaureate announced that all its UK examinations, scheduled to begin this May, will not take place, with final grades determined by a combination of coursework and predicted grades. 

Overdue though it undoubtedly was, the decision is welcome and now allows nearly 100 schools in this country some (but not complete) clarity for the rest of the academic year. 

And it is clarity that schools desperately need now. Teachers and students are stuck in a policy pea-souper: rumours echo through the smog, chilling the bones. There is mad talk of teachers having a cosy chat with students about which grades they’d like (“Are you sure you’re happy with why I’m giving you a 5, and not a 7?”), of all year groups – or perhaps just a few – returning on 8 March, of final tests being mandatory, but possibly voluntary

Meanwhile, Cambridge International, resembling a Japanese soldier emerging from the Philippines unaware that the war is lost, continues to jabber that its exams could still go ahead. At some point, someone will have to prise its white-knuckled fists away from the invigilators’ desk and drag it, screaming about lost market shares, from the deserted exam halls. 

International Baccalaureate: Why the cancellation of exams is important

In terms of the numbers of students affected, the IB’s announcement is small in comparison with the cancellation of GCSE and A-level exams. But it is still important for several reasons. 

Firstly, because of the diploma’s retention of coursework (in contrast to most A levels), it provides an alternative – and possibly more secure – route to final grades than those being explored through the Ofqual consultation. That said, the distribution of marks, with coursework consisting of between 20 and 40 per cent, and predicted grades taking between 60 and 80 per cent, will inevitably lead to disputed grades. If schools do have to live with Covid-19, should we reintroduce internal assessment to all our national qualifications? 

Secondly, it could reveal how an organisation that sees itself as something more than (and, arguably, superior to) Edexcel, OCR, AQA and other exam boards has recovered from a level of criticism it had never experienced before last summer. 

Lastly – and perhaps most crucially of all – we will see how assessment can be balanced between cold, machine-driven outcomes and warm but fallible examiners marking coursework. The devil, as always, will be in the data. 

Exams 2021: Many questions remain unanswered

There are many questions that remain unanswered. How will the coursework be marked? What training have these examiners had? What standardisation is in place to ensure that the students’ work will be marked and moderated not just across cohorts but across students in other parts of the world who have taken the examinations? 

Are deadlines being adjusted for coursework completion? How can parity be guaranteed across all students, especially when the breadth of the work being submitted is so vast? 

No doubt the answers to each of these questions, and more, are already in draft form somewhere, but schools need answers without further “consultation”.

On the day the exams were cancelled, the IB also told schools that in order "to strengthen predicted grade accuracy...we will be providing schools with individualised predicted grade distributions”. That sounds helpful and supportive, but schools with small cohorts (of which there are many), where the ability profile of the students changes each year, could be hit by the historical centre data. 

Such inconsistencies may not appear to matter in the great scheme of things. But if you are a bright student who, in any other year, could have got top grades and gone on to your first-choice university, you could be brought down by the results of students outside your ability range who took their exams at another time, and (it seems), in a different world. 

Should that happen, then a transparent and fair appeals process will need to be in place. In the past, the process of beginning an “enquiry upon results” with the IB has been laborious, arcane, and often (it felt) doomed to fail from the outset. 

Many of these challenges are not restricted to the IB, and some will be faced by A-level and GCSE students in the summer. The difference is that the IB schools will be going through them earlier. We have to hope that the IB gets it right, and that there is a global conversation that shares experience and insight, so that, in this interconnected world, we don’t see avoidable mistakes being made. Each data point is a child’s affected future.

In many ways, the IB is different from other awarding bodies, because it has a vision, a desire to “create a better and more peaceful world” through education. Stretched across its three regions, now torn between examined and non-examined assessments, and caught between appointing new leadership, the IB is at a defining moment in its proud history. 

For the sake of the thousands of students who benefit from its programmes – but also because of the hope and idealism that it continues to encapsulate – all of us must hope that it is equal to the challenges ahead. 

David James is deputy head of an independent school in London. He tweets as @drdavidajames

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