Looking for a bright future - students at a Bangkok high school doing the International Baccalaureate

The following article is an entry of the 2020 Youth Writes Story Competition funded by the Jan Michalski Foundation in Switzerland. While being judged separately by an independent panel of editors based in different parts of the world, we at Global Geneva considered it both relevant and timely to publish now in the public interest. (See 2019 Youth Writes Awards).

UPDATED 29 October, 2020: The editors have repeatedly requested comment – and even offered space for a response oped – from the International Baccalaureate Organization in Geneva. Apart from one initial response, the Geneva-based foundation could not be bothered. When mentioned to a number of teachers and parents, the reaction was that the IBO has always been known for its arrogance. Very disappointing.

Two years of hard work were wasted by the thousands of high school students worldwide when the International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO) released their results on 6 July, 2020. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, annual exams were cancelled this year. Normally accounting for approximately 80 per cent of students’ final grades, they represent a crucial aspect of candidates’ outcomes.

Under such extraordinary circumstances, however, the IBO decided that a combination of coursework, predicted grades, historical data and school-specific data would be the most accurate and fair approach to calculating results. (See IBO justifications herePrevious requests for comment by the IBO were ignored. We have now been promised a response to this article. The Editors).

Founded in Geneva, Switzerland, the IB itself was created as a means of offering the children of international diplomats a better education, to shape them into ‘global citizens’. It is described as a ‘rigorous’ pre-university programme to prepare students for post-high school studies and their future. Today, over 5,000 schools across the globe have chosen to teach the IB programme involving some 70,000 educators and one million students. Furthermore, not all these schools are privately run. Over 50 per cent are state-funded.

One of the IB objectives is to “encourage students of all ages to think critically and challenge assumptions” which is exactly what I am doing with this article. The IB is also designed to encourage students of all ages to consider both local and global contexts, and in a multilingual manner.

Having moved from my home of 14 years in Switzerland to a brand new school, country (Thailand), and continent (Asia), the past two years have come with a particular set of challenges. Adjusting to a completely new lifestyle, trying to find the right friends, and missing my home while simultaneously keeping up my academic rigour was definitely difficult. “But it’s the IB,” I kept telling myself. “It’s meant to be hard.”

IB initiatives. (Photo: IBO)

By mid-november of year 13, my final high school year, I was drowning – as with many others – in IA’s (coursework referred to as internal assessments), university applications and a crazy sports schedule. But I pushed through it, worked hard, passed all the obstacles, wiped away all the tears and everytime I felt like I couldn’t move from sheer exhaustion, I told myself it would all be worth it. Working towards a 38 average (the highest score is 45 with 24 needed to pass – top universities require at least 40), while balancing four varsity sports was, indeed difficult.

The IB Exams: a light at the end of the tunnel

All this meant a tough rest of the school year, but I knew there was light at the end of the tunnel. Doing my final exams well was crucial. They represent about 75 per cent of the students’ final course mark. Although this varies from course to course, IB evaluators also incorporate school-based student assessment in addition to IB internal and external assessments in this final grading.

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Suddenly, however, a small coronavirus outbreak in China turned into a global pandemic. My whole world was turned upside down. I went from spending my days socializing and learning at school to being stuck inside my apartment staring at the never-ending buildings of the Bangkok skyline. Then came the news that exams were cancelled and that final grades would be based on one’s past term work.

Yet for many of us, particularly those engaged in sports or outside social activities including community work, also a vital part of the IB, our hopes of excelling based on hard study for the exams disappeared. I no longer had any control over anything; so I sat back and hoped I would get the grades I had worked so hard for.

As with her exams, Maisie seeking to hit the ball out of the park. Sports and social activites are an important part of an IB education. (Photo: School parent)

A nightmare coming true

Before I knew it, it was the 6th of July, a date I had been dreading even before I started the programme. In a course driven by numbers, the digits I saw on the webpage were very underwhelming. For Geography, a subject I usually got only 6’s and 7’s in, I received a 5. For an Extended Essay that was predicted to achieve a high mark, that had been rewritten, restructured, and restarted countless times over eight months, I received one mark off failing. It was my nightmare coming true. Everything that could’ve gone wrong, went wrong.

“But how?” I kept asking myself. I immediately called my coordinator. He offered information, advice and his empathy, not just for me, but also for the many other students who suffered as a result of IB decision. Unfortunately he had no answers as to why we were ripped off. His biggest piece of advice was to request, for a 300 USD surcharge, a re-mark. I decided to do this as did many other students. I assumed that this would take at least several weeks. Yet, no more than 24 hours later, the supposed ‘re-mark’ came back. There wasn’t even a single point change, neither for my Extended Essay nor my Geography assessment.

My immediate question as with that of my friends and parents: How does a 36-page, in-depth piece of writing take less than 24 hours to correct when in past years it would normally take over two weeks? None of the 11 students out of 108 in my year who had sent in for remarks received a single point or grade change. And they, too, had received back their apparent re-assessments virtually instantly. Of course, my parents immediately wanted to know how this was possible and how were these 300 dollars really spent? Certainly not on a proper reassessment.

Time passed, word spread and people interacted with everyone exchanging their sides of the situation. Some were simply happy to have passed, particularly those who had half-assed their last two years. For others, it was far more serious. Their futures were at risk.

Some who had been expecting a 42 found themselves downgraded to a 35; or 37 to a 31. One 35 was even dropped to a 27. Countless missed their university offers and were left wondering what in the world they should do. Thousands of students were left – and are still left – with unanswered questions. In response, however, the IB authorities refused to properly deal with the issue and instead uploaded congratulatory posts on social media,  thanking the students for their hard work. 

Knowing the school I went to for my final years ranks as an extremely good IB institution, I harboured a small hope that both I and others would get what we felt we deserved. We signed petitions – one with over 10,000 signatures – articles were written and investigations began into how the IBO miscalculated so many students’ marks.

The IBO then came out with a statement identifying “three priority areas for review: (i) candidate level (ii) subject level discrepancy (iii) whole cohort discrepancy.” It also maintains that it is “working towards finding solutions on an individual and school basis.”

One month later, students were notified to check their candidate results, as they had gone under review (again). Just like July 6, however, the results were once again out of the ordinary. Regarding my own personal case, my one-mark-off-failing Extended Essay didn’t change, nor did my Geography. At the same time, to my astonishment, after working towards a 5 and consistently getting 4’s and 5’s throughout the programme, my biology mark went up to a 6. Evidently, I will gladly take that grade, but does it truly reflect my potential in the subject? 

The rocky road that the IBO has built itself this year begs the question of whether or not it should simply give candidates their predicted grades. According to ibreports.com, 81 per cent of predicted grades are within 3 points of the final result, and 91 per cent within 4 points. Simply put, anticipated grades from the teachers who taught their students for years, knew them personally and understood how they work, would be far more accurate than an unclear and flawed algorithm created by an organization that regards their students as little more than a statistic.  

Looking back, I had faith in the IB – just as had thousands of other students I believed in the legacy of fairness and equality the institution had created for itself for over the past 50 years, ever since its creation in 1968. In this past year of 2020, however, 2020, the IBO has let that legacy down. It has gone against everything both they and all those who committed to the system have prided themselves on. 

Maisie Wynd Smith is an 18-year-old Third Culture Canadian student raised in Australia, Scotland, Switzerland and Thailand. Although unsure of her future endeavours, next year she will be studying at McGill University where her experiences growing up as international expatriate have led her to find a keen interest in pursuing a degree related to the world’s environment and sustainability.

Maisie.Wynd-Smith

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