Scores of schools offering the International Baccalaureate (IB) are raising serious concerns about the qualification after marks for entire cohorts plummeted by as much as 30 per cent this year, TES has learned.
Teachers are demanding answers from the awarding body, the International Baccalaureate Organisation (IBO), in the wake of "drastic" reductions in marks for internally assessed coursework. It has prompted fears that hundreds of students could miss out on their preferred choice of university.
A large proportion of the IB is made up of coursework. As well as assignments for individual subjects, each student is expected to submit an extended essay which can be worth as much as 25 per cent of the overall grade.
UK schools are increasingly turning to qualifications such as the IB and IGCSE instead of A-levels and GCSEs as they are thought to be less vulnerable to political interference and grade inflation.
But concerns are growing over an increasing volatility in scores from the IBO in recent years. Teachers of subjects as wide-ranging as English, history, geography, maths, physics and art have seen their cohorts' coursework marks reduced by up to 30 per cent after moderation by the organisation.
One history teacher in an international school said they had been working in IB schools for more than 10 years and had never experienced such a drop in scores.
"You send the coursework off and sometimes you may get them back with one or two points knocked off, but we've been getting seven or eight points this year, which is as much as 30 per cent," the teacher said.
Afraid to speak out
Few of the teachers approached by TES were prepared speak on the record about the changes to marking for fear that they would be suspended for speaking out against the organisation. One of the main misgivings about the IB among teachers was that it was a "closed shop" with a hold on schools that offered it.
A geography teacher at an international school in France said that the marking of the extended essay, which can determine whether a student passes or fails the IB, had become a "lottery" in recent years.
"You're not given any feedback at all with the extended essay. It used to be fairly stable until about three years ago," the teacher said. "As teachers we had a good idea of what grade a piece of work would get, but if you think something will get an A, it can come back now with a C. It's totally in the hands of the moderators. It's a complete lottery."
Teaching staff at schools offering the IB are now calling for the IBO to provide better feedback when it comes to marking. Sally Beevers, headteacher of Broadgreen International School, a state school in Liverpool that offers the IB diploma, said that although she was a supporter of the qualification, more needed to be done about transparency. "I am a passionate believer in the IB and there are major benefits that come with offering it to students, but I do think there is room for greater accountability and openness when it comes to marking," she said.
The IB has grown in popularity across the globe, not least in the UK where it is now offered by some of the country's leading independent schools, which prefer its breadth of subjects and the academic challenge it provides.
Wellington College has been a prominent supporter of the IB, and Richard Atherton, the school's IB director, defended the organisation's marking.
"For me there has been a distinct improvement over the past three years. I feel strongly that the IB is heading in the right direction," he said. "If we were given back numbers like those quoted, we would look at ourselves for answers, and find out what was going on in our school."
The IBO insisted it was transparent in its marking, adding that about 75 per cent of externally assessed grades were unchanged, and "virtually all" changes were by one or two marks.
A spokesperson added: "The desire for feedback is an important issue that we regularly talk to schools about. All assessment systems are capable of error. Schools may request a senior examiner to review the original assessment. This applies to externally marked components, such as the extended essay, and to the moderation of coursework.
"So far, just 5 per cent of re-moderations have resulted in grade changes in the May 2015 examination session, and figures for individual components such as the extended essay are fully reviewed every year."
The International Baccalaureate Organisation was founded in 1968 to deliver a qualification based on the pedagogy of Marie-Thrse Maurette, a French educator who developed the framework for the IB in 1948 while working for the International School of Geneva.
Ms Maurette outlined the structure of the qualification in a handbook for Unesco. This was developed further by international schools before being awarded university recognition in the UK in 1980. IB students take six subjects and submit an extended essay of 4,000 to 5,000 words.
Another part of the qualification is called the "theory of knowledge", which asks students to reflect on their work. All candidates must also take part in at least 150 hours of community service or activity, such as the Duke of Edinburgh's Award.