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After an incredibly complicated exam season in 2020, the IB has revealed a new strategy for exams in 2021 that addresses the loss of teaching time and other challenges and uncertainties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Following consultation with IB schools in January, the IB has presented a dual assessment model in order to provide the best course of action for individual institutions. Essentially, for the May 2021 Diploma Programme and Career-related Programme examination session, IB schools will decide whether or not to hold exams, depending on local restrictions and their ability to do so safely. 

If schools can administer exams, students will be assessed with the ‘examination route.’ Otherwise, students who cannot sit exams will be graded using the ‘non-examination route.’ Understandably, there are plenty of questions regarding implementation, grading, and how the plan was developed. Let’s go over some of the details.  

How has the content of the exams changed?

In the fall of last year, the IB announced a reduced assessment model for May 2021, which involves modified weighting between papers, removing specific papers, and other adaptations. The new changes put forth are in addition to the reduced assessment model, under which 28 examinations have either had components removed, requirements amended, or both. This includes six science and six arts subjects and will also affect seven exams based on school syllabuses.

The full exam schedule can be found here

How was the dual-route framework developed?

Following the reduced assessment model’s announcement, the decision to provide two options for testing was arrived at after a survey of over 3,000 schools in 152 countries. The results found that many schools and students continue to face significant challenges nearly a year into the COVID-19 pandemic and that testing needed to reflect this reality. Following the successful roll-out of a similar model in the November 2020 exam series, it was determined that a dual approach could offer solutions.  

How will schools determine which pathway to take?

The IB is working with schools to determine which of the two pathways is most suitable according to the region: written examinations, where they can be administered safely, or an alternative route using a combination of internal assessment coursework and teacher-predicted grades, where they cannot.

The IB has also provided schools the option of deferring to the November 2021 or May 2022 session with no additional cost. As of February 2021, roughly 71% of schools (61% of students) have indicated that they will be able to administer the exams. 

How will testing and grading differ according to the route?

For ‘exam route’ students, May 2021 exams will proceed normally with measures to help schools ensure exams are administered safely. Students will sit exams and complete assessments according to the reduced assessment model that the IBO announced this year.

The modified grade boundaries presented by the IB will also be used to account for the amount of time teachers and students have lost due to the coronavirus pandemic. For ‘examination’ students, predicted grades will not be used to calculate students’ grades.

Students on the ‘non-examination route,’ meanwhile, will be evaluated using a combination of internal assessment, coursework, and predicted grades. IAs and coursework will continue to weigh the same as they did previously, with predicted grades replacing examinations in the final calculations. Thus: Coursework & IAs (20%-40%) + Predicted grades (60%-80%) = Final Mark.

According to the IB

During grade-awarding, appropriate grade boundaries will be set for each route, building in generosity that reflects the disruption experienced in teaching and learning worldwide and considering how grades are likely to be distributed in other large-scale qualifications.  

IB grades will be distributed between schools and students to ensure each qualification is an accurate reflection of achievement and that they can be fairly compared with one another. Unlike some other systems, the IB’s extensive use of coursework allows for this. 

How will this model address the problems that arose in May 2020?

There were many complications during the roll-out and assessment of last year’s exam. Upon evaluation, it has been shown that predicted grades in May 2020 were higher than in previous years. As a result, the IB has officially recommended generous guidelines for 2121, within which teachers will be asked to submit their predictions. 

The IB has also stated that they are developing a process to address a scenario in which teachers feel the predicted grade distributions are not aligned with student performance. It seems they will have the option to request a different grade distribution and provide evidence that supports their claim. 

The IB has also stated that for each assessment session, they will work with government regulators to address local context, restrictions, and the impact of COVID-19 on students. 

What can students do to prepare?

Until the exams are completed, a level of uncertainty will remain. The current situation means that it is vital for students to continue to work towards their final assessments and not lose momentum in the run-up to May. Comprehensive revision will serve students well regardless of the exam route taken. 

Students should also keep in mind that even if their school has presently confirmed exam route status, there is a chance they could be moved to the non-exam route if local policy changes.

With this in mind, it is essential for students to work with their schools and teachers to ensure their Predicted Grades (PGs) remain high, as this is what will replace exams should policy change before examination. 

As the 2021 exam session approaches, students and teachers are encouraged to talk to their school’s IB coordinator for further details and updates.