Tuesday, 3 July 2018

International Baccalaureate, grade Inflation and the Importance of Educators setting policy for schools

Today sees thousands of students in the UAE who study on the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP) receiving their examination results. The IBDP is undoubtedly one of the most demanding sixth form programmes in the world that extends well beyond the academic. The International Baccalaureate is not so much an examination system as an education philosophy enshrined in a curriculum. Students are required to study six subjects (including English, mathematics, a science, a language and a humanity), learn critically to evaluate knowledge in the mandated Theory of Knowledge course, research a 4000-word extended essay in an area of interest and engage in a series of self-directed supra-curricular experiences under the umbrella of the ‘Creativity, Activity and Service’ component of the programme. 
The International Baccalaureate is unique amongst the fifteen curricula in the UAE, because it, alone, is not a national curriculum. Rather, the IB system was created by and is governed by educators. It is fully independent of any political control and influence and is not crippled by the burdens of league tables and political agendas changing over time or the vested interests of corporate conglomerates. The International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO), which celebrates its 50th Anniversary this year, was founded in Geneva as a not-for-profit organisation by a group of educationalists with a mission ‘to create a better world through education’. The IB Diploma was devised “to provide an internationally acceptable university admissions qualification suitable for the growing mobile population of young people whose parents were part of the world of diplomacy, international and multi-national organizations" (IBO Website) by offering standardized courses and assessments for students aged 16 to 19. 
It has been a feature of Governments around the world over the last century that they wish to use education as a vehicle for driving social and economic agendas. The very existence of the IB programme opens up the debate about whether or not this is best for pupils educationally. The difference between a system run by educators and a system run by a government can be illustrated by comparing levels of grade inflation at IBDP and A-level over the past 40 years. 
Research by the University of Buckingham Centre for Education and Employment Research (CEER) analysing A-level grade inflation found that the percentage of A grades rose steadily from 9% in 1984 to 27% in 2010. Indeed, 8.3% of students achieved an A* at A-level which is approximately the same percentage that achieve an A grade in the years 1964 to 1984. There is little doubt that the politicisation of education in the UK from the late 1980s was a significant factor in this. 
Smithers A-levels 1951-2014 CEER 2014, p.2
The same cannot be said for the International Baccalaureate. The IB Diploma has not suffered from the excesses of grade inflation that characterise A-level. The IB Diploma grade average has remained at 30 points ± 0.3 for the past forty years. IB Diploma results are effectively a zero-sum game: for a school to do better than previously, other schools will have to do worse. It is understandable that this would not be popular with governments or schools. 
Indeed, grade inflation is almost inevitable in educational systems which are run by governments, especially where the examination boards are commercial entities. Any attempt to maintain standards is faced with an alliance of government, schools, Exam Boards, parents and pupils all of whom want higher grades. Governments and schools want improved results to prove that they are doing a good job; profit-making examination boards want to attract more customers; and parents and children want to do well to gain access to good universities and jobs. 
The IB Diploma students who receive their grades today will be able to compare their scores on a level with their parents (and, potentially, even their grandparents!). 30 points today is exactly the same as 30 points 40 years ago. 
The comparison in grade inflation between A-level in the UK and the International Baccalaureate Diploma reminds us that there is much to be gained from educational policy being set by educationalists rather than politicians. While we celebrate the success of those who got their results today get their results this week, let us also congratulate the International Baccalaureate Organisation on celebrating fifty years of taking the lead globally in educational integrity.

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