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What do IB Diploma Programme grades mean?

By Dr Matt Glanville
College Student Taking a Test

Following the publication of IB exam results for Diploma Programme (DP) or Career-related (CP) students following the May 2016 session, it is worth focusing for a moment on what those results actually mean.

In most DP courses the IB uses a seven point grading system, helpfully labelled 1 to 7, where 1 means that the student has shown very little knowledge and understanding in their answers and 7 showing that the student has gained a great depth of knowledge and understanding. These grade descriptors are a core part of how grade boundaries are set. In the core subjects we use grades A to E but the principle remains, each grade means something.

It is difficult to put every single candidate into just one of seven boxes for each course. Students are complex in their understanding of topics and so trying to award one grade is a huge simplification. There will be many cases where a candidate’s performance could be reasonably described by either grade. This problem does not go away if we increase the number of grades to 14 or 28, in fact the issue becomes more common because the more grades you have the more opportunities there are to fall between two of them.

But what does this all mean for candidate results? We appreciate that not every student who scores, for example, 73 marks will have the same understanding of their subjects. Sometimes candidates lose marks because they make mistakes on questions they would have otherwise got right. At other times candidates deserve marks for what they have written but it may represent a deep understanding in one specific topic rather than the subject in general (as indicated by their answers to other questions). When we are setting grade boundaries we will review some candidate work on 73 marks that the examiners judge to be at the lower end of a grade 7 and other candidates’ work which has the same mark but the examiners judge to be at the very top of a grade 6. We make the fairest decision we can so that the majority of students on that particular mark get the grade that best fits their performance.

Most importantly, for these ‘boundary candidates’ both grades are fair based on their performance in the examinations. The problem with putting students into ‘grade-shaped boxes’ is that a one point difference can change their grade. There will always be a candidate one mark away from getting a better grade where ever the grade boundary is set.

Realistically, it would have been fair to award candidates who are one or two points above the set grade boundary the lower grade, and it would most likely be fair to award candidates who are one or two points below the set grade boundary the higher grade – however the important point to note is that in each of these cases both grades are fair reflections of the candidates performance.

So with an element of ambiguity, one might ask if it is reasonable to give out grades at all. Should we simply give a description of the strengths and weakness of the student?  We would strongly argue that this would be even less fair because decisions on a student’s future will be made. If not on ’grades’ then on criteria which are even less fair – how well they get on with an interviewer, how smartly they dress or where they live perhaps?  When assessing IB students, we take great care  in giving a fair and meaningful indication of a student’s performance in their examinations, and whatever the challenges, it is a better measure than trusting completely to other admissions and recruitment departments, who have less knowledge of the student and may take less care when making decisions on a student’s future.

Dr Matt Glanville is the Head of Assessment Principles and Practice at the International Baccalaureate

  • Syed Arshad Mushtaq

    This year new Chemistry students had to appear first time new curriculum and all my students got at least two grades less than what I was expecting.

  • Ali

    Sir, you could’ve downloaded the new IB Chemistry guide and shared it with your students! There were also specimen papers available for your comfort and the paper pattern was exactly the same.

  • pawelkono

    Grades do harm. A 7 can harm as well as a 1. They can make a student lazy and overconfident, or give them impression that they cannot reach their goals. Students quickly start to think about themselves based upon their grades, they learn to have better grades, and that’s not good. With 20 years of teaching experience I believe that telling/noting improvements as well as things still to improve would be much better to students’ learning experience. Everybody is different, and is elsewhere on his or her road. Out task is to guide them uphill, and every step uphill is a victory. Instead of saying “Your work is satisfactory”, we should say “Here is where you do it right, and here you can still improve.” Even the best students in the classroom have a lot to improve – so what is the difference? A “hilltop” metaphor is unfortunate, since there is no such a thing in education as a top of the hill, where they can say “I am just perfect”. A 7 does not mean that certainly. We already have a set of criteria to fulfill, to pass the IB exams, so instead of grades, after exams we should give students a written feedback where they are on the road. This could be also available to recruitment departments. I do not believe that a short description of pros/cons would be problematic.

  • Syed Arshad Mushtaq

    I did that Ali, I even We solved past papers too, I knew my students were not that great but still they were not that bad either

  • Kate Taverner

    Thanks very much for your thoughts and engagement in this article. There are many opinions on the justification for giving grades and we intend to develop further content on this topic in the coming months. The Assessment team have read your feedback and will take your viewpoints into consideration when developing that content. Thanks again.

  • Frederic Marcel Tchouli

    Hello! I am an IB student from Enko La Gaiete International School, the first in Central Africa. Adapting myself to this completely new curriculum has not been a piece of cake. Having read the article and subsequent comments with care, I wish people could reflect more on the following situations:

    1) I student is one point less than the benchmark to have a grade 7 in all his IB subjects and gets a 36/42 for his/her final results. Another student strikes just the threshold and gets a 42/42. How does this wide gap in final grades between these two hardworking students reflect the difference in their knowledge and level of understanding, assuming the students took the same courses? Reflecting on such apparently extreme cases can be an excellent starting point to envisage a revolution in the IB grading system.

    2) Between someone who gets 85/100 and another who gets 86/100 in a random Higher Level subject, there is a difference of one grade point. However, between someone who gets 85/100 and someone who gets a 70/100, there is no difference in grade points. How can the rationality of a grading system where 14 points of difference disappear in conversions while a point of difference turns into a difference of approximately 14 points ( in terms of class means for example 93 for 7 and 78 for 6) be understood? Well, all grading systems have their own shortcomings when it comes to the accurate measurement of ‘learning’.

    The first case exposes a significant flaw in attempting to build discrete blocks where students who get opposite boundaries of the interval have the same value. ( This is wrong from what I learned in my Mathematics HL class).
    Why don’t we consider summing up the percentages students get on 100 in each object to get something on 600 for the six subjects?
    I believe that the ultimate purpose of a grading system is to provide a base from which candidates’ potentials can be tested fairly and accurately, while maintaining the possibility to distinguish between students with slightly different levels of understanding.
    A continuous grading system ensures that excellent students who lose focus i the examination hall and make hard-to-imagine mistakes are slightly penalized by losing 1 or 2 points because by not making the mistake this student made, they are showing that they were more focused during the hall ( which is a commendable attitude).
    A ‘continuous’ grading scale ( more blocks of much less width) is one the right path, in my humble opinion, to correct the mathematical problem that arises by assuming that 85 = 70 is true while 69 = 70 is false. It is ‘less wrong’ to say that 85.56 = 85. 59.
    This is what calculus in mathematics achieves. By making the rectangles under a curve to have infinitesimal widths, we get a better approximation of the area . ( the closer delta-x is to zero, the more accurate is the integral.)
    In other words, the less wide the blocks are, the more the grading system has the power to distinguish different levels of understanding. I am not saying that a grade level should have a range of 0.00001.
    After all, all grading systems are unsuccessful attempts to mathematically model something that is not numerical: the potential of the human mind.