Do 2021's IB Results Need a Health Warning?

There was one feature that was notably absent following the release of the IB Diploma results last week - outrage.  This is in stark contrast to the situation a year ago when outrage was the currency of the day. asks why...
Do 2021's IB Results Need a Health Warning?
By James Mullan
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Social media was alight last year with parents, students and teachers who believed that the IB Organisation  had bodged the marking process which had been speedily put in place after the worldwide impact of Covid. Petitions were launched and the tsunami of outrage led to a re-assessment by the IBO of the marking process which was broadly welcomed by the concerned parties. 

If there were to be an emoji for this year’s results for schools, however, it’s likely it would be a ‘smiley face’ accompanied by a ‘thumbs up’.  The inboxes of’s editors in the UAE as well as those covering Singapore, Hong Kong, the UK, Vietnam and Thailand have been awash with positivity, celebration and self-congratulation.  

Certain schools that have previously been very shy or indeed absent when it came to publicly sharing their results data have been ‘loud and proud’ about their achievements this year.

Many schools have seen their average score for their cohort increase hugely while the highly cherished top score of 45 has been in much more plentiful supply than ever before. The total number of top scorers with 45 points has risen globally to 1,155, three times that of last year’s 339.

A total of 130 students in Hong Kong achieved the highest score of 45 compared to 23 students last year. And schools that had never or very rarely had students achieving that top mark previously have had multiple students doing so.

So what exactly is going on?

Clearly the students this year have had to endure a year like no other – not even the previous cohort in 2020 for whom most of the elements of the IB curriculum, save examinations, had been completed by the time restrictions came into place last March. Certain key elements of the IB programme such as community service have been severely curtailed as a result of the pandemic. 

We know that the IBO has been in constant communication with schools about the processes and assessment protocols it has put in place and there has been some tough talking and negotiation ongoing particularly through the first two terms of this year. 

The IBO offered two alternatives, with exams or without exams. In the UAE the choice was taken out of the hands of schools as the Ministry of Education ruled that no exams should take place across any curriculum because of the pandemic. Globally 104,275 students were in the non-exam route and 65,576 students were in the exam route (809 students were split between both routes).

Overall with the Diploma and Career Related programmes this year there has been clearly a strong reliance on the data and assessments provided by individual schools and on the historic achievement of these schools.  They were asked to provide data over the past three years and were provided with a grade allocation based on that data.

New schools, categorized as those which could not provide three years’ data were given a free allocation of grades so enjoyed an unusual degree of autonomy when it came to awarding grades. This rule also applied to low class sizes and new subject offerings in schools which therefore had no previous data.  

So what does all of this add up to for parents who are assessing which school offers their child the best opportunities for studying the IB Diploma and the Careers Related Programme?

First it’s worth re-stating the obvious – this is an exceptional year and everyone has had to adjust accordingly to the situation as it has unfolded. Circumstances may be similar next year but in the longer term there will be a return to the curriculum as it has been run for the past 52 years. 

The IBO has been zealous in the defence of its worldwide average which has risen from 29.62 (the last year exams were taken) in 2019 to 33.02. It is expected by many commentators that the average will return to around the 30 point space once normality, or near normality has been established. Should this happen it will clearly have a significant impact on the results achieved by individual schools. 

It is certainly worth parents checking the pre-Covid IB scores and results of schools where these are available and putting them side by side with the results from this year.  If there are significant differences this should at the least be a cause for inquiry. There are, of course, years when schools enjoy strong cohorts but a two point of above average jump and the appearance of several 45 toppers in a particular school should raise questions. 

New schools could, of course, have been fortunate in attracting top students but again their performance against established schools cannot be fully assessed until normality has been re-established. 

It can be argued strongly that the IBO, which had a torrid time last year has learned from the experience and has acted entirely appropriately in allowing a large degree of flexibility to be exercised by schools in the assessment process this year.  And it could equally be argued that celebrating the achievements of students, teachers and schools which have been through a hellish time over the past eighteen months is a genuinely good thing. 

But it’s clear that this will indeed be an asterisk year not just for the IBO but for all examination boards around the world. We can expect similar issues to arise with the release of the GCSE and A Level results in August. Whether that really matters, however, given what we’ve all had to endure is a bigger question for society at large.

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