Covid-19 and the International Baccalaureate

A month passed, but yet our pain hasn’t diminished and justice unserved (#ibscandal, Aug 6)

Three months ago, when I wrote my introductory post for the CASS blog, I had a clear research plan for my SSHRC (Canada’s Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council) postdoctoral fellowship, which involved examining IB discourses in a large corpus of global (English) newspapers to see how these compared to IB discourses in Canada. However, that plan took a completely new and unexpected turn last month when Covid-19 and the IB collided.

The word “unprecedented” has been used a great deal in connection with our current Covid-19 world. While readers of history may raise a sceptical eyebrow about exactly how unprecedented this situation is, it does apply to the IB organization and the events unfolding globally in relation to the May 2020 final examination results which were released on July 6. This year has been unlike any other year in the organization’s 52 year history because for the first time, the high stakes IB diploma program final exams were cancelled due to Covid-19. The announcement was made on March 23, further elaborated by the Director General Siva Kumari on March 24, with a follow-up statement on May 13 describing in detail the alternate assessment model to be used.

On July 6, the IB organization published the final results for 174,355 IB Diploma Program (DP) and Career-related Program (CP) students with great fanfare. Of these, 170,343 were DP candidates from 146 countries, whose results would most likely be linked to university admission. Congratulatory messages were splashed on the IB organization website and Twitter feeds, celebrating the triumph of the Class of 2020 for their great achievements in such a difficult year. Messages from the Director General, Siva Kumari, Deputy Director Sally Holloway, Chief Assessment Officer Paula Wilcock and representatives from IB schools around the world joined together in their praise for this cohort, who had been forced to adapt to a new and fluid situation.

But a problem was brewing that was not evident from the IB organization’s celebratory communication. Reports began to emerge from a variety of sources (e.g., Wired, Reuters, TES, Financial Times, Bloomberg) about issues with IB final results, which turned out to be lower than many had expected and thus put students’ university admission and/or scholarships in jeopardy. Within four days of the release of results, an online petition calling for “Justice for May 2020 IB Graduates”, with the hashtag #ibscandal, had already collected 15,000 signatures. Government bodies such as Ofqual (Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation) in the UK and the Data Protection Authority in Norway also became involved in seeking clarification regarding the IB organization’s grading system. Despite such wide coverage, the IB website released only a single statement on July 15 about the results, and the @iborganization Twitter account remained largely inactive, with nine posts on July 6 in connection to the results, and the next post on July 20 saying: In response to the enquiries received, we share further clarity regarding our awarding model for the May 2020 session. We are in direct communication with schools, providing support options including a new process to review extraordinary cases. Learn more:

Over the past month, the #ibscandal hashtag has evolved to become a space where not only students, parents and teachers voice their opinions (e.g., the quote at the start), but also where key information is exchanged, such as newly published articles or videos. There are also academics and journalists posting on this site, most recently a professor from New York University looking to talk to students “affected by the 2020 #ibscandal”. And on July 30, there was an announcement saying that the IB controversy was now on Wikipedia. In sum, there is a stark contrast between the IB organization’s silence on anything to do with results on one side, while anger and frustration mount on the other.

Meanwhile, in Canada, no coverage of these events can be found anywhere. This is curious since Canada not only has the second highest number of DP candidates in the world (11,962 reported for the May 2020 examination session) but ranks as the number one “destination for IB transcripts of any university in the world” (Arida, 2016). It would seem reasonable to expect that there might be some interest in the events taking place globally. Just to be sure I wasn’t missing anything, I conducted a search for international AND baccalaureate on Canadian News stream, a database containing over 280 news sources. Of the 17 results for the month of July, three were not about the IB, two mentioned the IB in passing as part of a person’s qualifications, one reported on a school in Vancouver going ahead with its plans to become an IB school, 10 reported on complaints against Canada’s Governor General Julie Payette and her assistant, who had been friends “going back to their days in an international baccalaureate program decades ago”. And one article, from July 21 (over two weeks after the IB results were published), is a reprint of the Reuters story Global exam grading algorithm under fire for suspected bias by A. A. Schapiro. In other words, there is no Canadian news story even though the topic is clearly newsworthy.

So like everyone else who is interested in this topic, I am a regular visitor to the #ibscandal hashtag, observing events unfold in real-time. As a result I’ve noticed some rather interesting developments over the past four weeks which I hope to explore further using corpus tools and methods. As they often say here at CASS, watch this space!

Update: Since this piece was written, the IB organization issued a statement on August 17 explaining changes to their assessment model in light of data and evidence they received from schools. The announcement also appeared on the organization’s Twitter feed (