'There are no fairy-tale endings in the IB fiasco'

Revised International Baccalaureate results are little consolation if you've lost a university place, says this leader


International Baccalaureate results: 'There is no fairy-tale ending'

It’s been just over five weeks since the International Baccalaureate published the May 2020 Diploma results. Yesterday, they were republished, after 700 out of the 3,020 schools that received their results in the May session requested a review on behalf of their students, often after collating painstakingly detailed evidence.

The original algorithm used student coursework, school-predicted grades and school context (explained as the relationship between predicted-grade accuracy, performance in coursework versus exams and final outcomes). 

In addition, IB examiners marked all student coursework this year, instead of the normal moderation or sampling process, in an attempt to minimise any issues.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough.

International Baccalaureate results: Crushing despair

A straw poll of my Twitter contacts told of students at the top end failing to reach deserved higher grades, of discrepancies between higher-level and standard-level students, of subjects where some seemed to receive predicted grades without question and others where they slipped more than two grades downwards. 

The saddest anecdotes revealed the failed Diplomas, the lost university places, the crushing despair that students and their teachers felt at two years of hard work resulting in disappointment and no real control over the narrative of how things had ended up that way. 

Overall, one of the biggest gripes was over the fact that there needed to be a relatively large discrepancy for any changes to grades to be considered. And, in order to contest, schools (or the students themselves) were expected to pay for it.

Our university and careers adviser had her whole summer swallowed up by a relentless pursuit of university admissions officers, as she begged, cajoled and pleaded for students to be accepted despite grades that did not meet their offer criteria. Our students and their parents languished in a horrible limbo of stressed uncertainty for weeks – in a debacle that turned out to be entirely unnecessary as, five weeks later, they received emails to tell them that, actually, they had got their grades after all.

Not a fairy tale

Oh, well, you might think – all’s well that ends well, and other meaningless platitudes. But this fiasco is not a fairy tale. Although disenfranchised students may have finally seen justice done regarding their grade transcripts, their dream university places may have been lost forever. 

Though one student woke up to an email telling her that she had been moved up three points – with no explanation, after remarks had been sent back with no changes – it was little consolation. She had already been rejected from her chosen course in applied anatomy, and subsequently from clearing. Now that she has the required grade 5s in her science subjects, will her story end any differently? 

Announcing the news on the day that the government performed its A-level U-turn, with centre-assessed grades finally accepted as the fairest method of awarding a future, only intensifies the cruelty. 

Upheaval and stresses to come

Universities have already warned that they will be unable to honour the original offers made, a sign of the continued upheaval and stresses to come.

“I hope my students can finally relax now,” commented one teacher, but the fruitless phone calls and emails for many are only just beginning.

There was never going to be a clean and neat response to an exam session where no exams were sat. Many feel that the IB has at least listened to teachers and students and responded, albeit in a ponderously slow manner. 

It is unclear whether the IB has had its hand forced by petitioning, by political factors or perhaps by a desire to embody the values in its own learner profile. Whatever the reason, in comparison with Ofqual, it is probably the good guy of the story, acting quickly and reassuringly to make changes to the examined components of the 2021 exam series.

It’s the individual injustices, however, that smart. These are students, not numbers to fit on a bell curve. And, if there is any conclusion to this long, sorry narrative, it’s that perhaps algorithms are fine for traffic signals or weather forecasting – but less so for determining the future of our young people's lives.

The author is a senior leader at an international school in Europe

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