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The power of internal assessments

With the cancellation of May exams due to COVID-19 (Coronavirus), a lot of IB students are wondering how two years of their work will be assessed and graded. Paul Campbell, Head of Development and Outreach, turned to his best source on the IB experience: his daughter, Sarah, a Diploma Programme (DP) graduate. Together, they look at the internal assessment (IA) from a student perspective and explore why universities look for IB skills in their incoming classes. Introduction by Paul Campbell followed by Q&A with Sarah Campbell.

Hey everybody, it’s Paul Campbell. I work for the International Baccalaureate (IB) and have for almost 32 years. After all this time, some of you may know me, but this is not about me. This is about the extraordinary situation we find ourselves in.

In the age of COVID-19, the IB has had to make remarkable changes, particularly in how we deliver evidence-based, valid final grades that students can use to access higher education and other opportunities

Like a lot of organizations that provide student testing, IB issues a final mark for every subject that a student undertakes in the Diploma Programme (DP) or the Career-related Programme (CP). Unlike other organizations that provide final exams for students, the IB’s grading system scale of one to seven is based on much more than the performance on a single high-stakes final exam. A large portion of the grade comes from work done in the IB classroom over the course of two years. Some of this work is marked by teachers first and then also moderated by the IB to make sure that the criteria are properly applied. We call these internal assessment (IA). I thought this would be a good time to demystify this process, since it is this internal assessment and classroom work that’s going to form the basis of the final scores.

I could go into it in great detail, but I think that’s kind of boring. So, I thought a better idea would be to interview somebody who did the IB and have that person reflect on the classroom work they did during their two years as an IB student.

Paul Campbell, Head of Development and Outreach at the International Baccalaureate (IB), with his daughter Sarah.

Fortunately, I have an IB graduate in my house. My daughter, Sarah Campbell, graduated from Albert Einstein High School, which is part of the Montgomery County Public School System, in 2018. She’s a university student right now, with the goal of becoming an elementary school teacher.

I reassure you that this is not someone who found the IB easy. Like a lot of her peers, Sarah found the IB to be quite a challenge. But the part that she remembers and the part she feels has paid off is the work she did during those two years.

Universities, over the quarter century that I’ve been working with them, have also reassured me that they understand that IB students do a lot of significant work in the classroom that is graded according to international standards. Universities know the IB, they trust the IB, and we have every reason to be confident that they will continue to recognize IB graduates as a group of students that are uniquely well-prepared to succeed. It is clear that universities around the world are going to treat IB credentials with the same respect and recognition They have always provided.

We spent a half century building up the reputation of our assessments in the Middle Years Programme (MYP), in the DP and in the CP, and now we have this opportunity to shine a light on how worthwhile they are. In these extraordinary times, it is reassuring to know that IB students will be recognized and rewarded for the work they have done. I think it is best at this point to let Sarah take up the story.

Q&A with Sarah and Paul

Paul Campbell: Sarah, when you found out that the IB students this year around the world didn’t have to sit for their written exams, what was your reaction?

Sarah Campbell: I remember when you told me that students didn’t have to sit for exams. I was with my friend who also did the IB and we immediately thought, “that’s so not fair!” Because they were the more difficult part of the IB, and we were jealous, very jealous. And if you talk to any IB graduate who heard about it, we would all say the same thing, which is good for them but not good for us.

Paul: I think that’s a pretty natural reaction. The more you think about it, and I’ve worked with universities and school districts and schools for 25 years, what I’ve noticed is their respect for the entire IB experience as opposed to just the exam itself in May.

Would you reflect a little bit on your internal assessments in different classes? I’ll start with an obvious one, which was history. Do you remember what you did in history?

Sarah: Yeah, after the two years, the culminating thing we worked the hardest on was a 15-page paper that had to be written in relation to the work we did on dictatorships around a lot of countries. Mine was on the effects of Fidel Castro’s policies on Cuba. We had to remember a lot of things from both years and then form our own research paper.

Paul: So, you completed a 15-page paper, which I think is pretty uncommon in an average high school experience. I don’t think I did something like that until well into college. Did you have to make an oral presentation in history?

Sarah: No oral presentation in history, but that paper we wrotethe 15-page paper—took months and months of work.

Paul: That written paper is the “classic” internal Assessment, which is a significant research essay, properly cited, properly researched, marked by the teacher, following IB criteria.

“It’s about all the different work you do. It’s about trying to find ways for you to show your best work, what we call full and fair assessment.”

Now let’s talk a little bit about English, which I know was maybe one of your least favorite subjects but one that I think that benefited you the most. Do you remember the various things that you did in English that were part of IB?

Sarah: We had to make a presentation, 15 minutes long, no note cards, nothing, about a text in relation to something that was happening in the world today. I chose The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and I talked about it in relation to the women’s march in Washington. We were really able to take something that we learned in English, any texts we wanted and really apply it to something that was happening in the world, which really helped bring the book to life for a lot of people. There were no real guidelines besides making it a certain length of time. We also wrote a lot of papers to try to dissect and understand what writers are trying to convey to their readers.

Sarah Campbell at her graduation ceremony from Albert Einstein High School.

Paul: Wow, so what I am hearing about the internal assessment experience, is that you wrote a lot of complex papers, you did an individual oral presentation in front of the whole class—with no notes—and then you also had to analyze an unseen passage of literature and an unseen poem. And all those things, by the way, were marked by the teacher and samples of the teacher’s marking were sent to the IB to make sure that that teacher was properly applying the criteria.

Finally, those marks became part of your final grade of one to seven. That sounds pretty thorough and impressive, but let’s talk about a couple more. Science, I think you took an environmental science? It was way back in 11th grade, so it was a while ago. Do you remember any major projects you did in science?

Sarah:  We did a project where we had to choose a scientific question and answer it. My IB science teacher was really into talking about our impact on the world, the ecological footprint one person makes and how that adds up to things like climate change. So, mine was how does someone’s background affect how they impact their environment?

How do factors like income affect how much an individual recycles? I think it’s a really interesting question and not something that we normally think about.

I had to design a survey and have people fill it out. I used a website that calculated your ecological footprint based on if you walk to work or if you take a bus or you drive and whether you keep the lights on in your house at night, to analyse my data. And then I had to write a paper with my conclusions and if my scientific question was answered.

Paul: So, you collect data, you analyse it and you present it or write about it?

Sarah: Yes.

Paul: That’s pretty impressive.

Paul: So, Spanish was your language, and I don’t know if you recall, but most IB students I talked to remember a couple of things they had to do in their second language that were unusual. Do you remember?

Sarah: I did the standard level (SL) curriculum so I didn’t have exactly the same experience as someone who did higher level (HL). First, I had to read a passage in Spanish and then explain what I read, using my knowledge from the past two years of study to my teachers―and that’s with no notes or vocabulary in front of me. Using everything that I had learned from Spanish in the past two years.

Paul: You had to explain it in Spanish?

Sarah: Yes, in Spanish!

Paul: I think that’s probably enough for everyone to get the picture. Sarah, we could go on and on, because I remember you complaining about it every day when you were in high school. But, I think the point is that all these valid historically proven assessments are part of IB’s philosophy, which is: it’s not just about an exam, it’s about all the different work you do. It’s about trying to find ways for you to show your best work, what we call full and fair assessment.

“Universities know what’s going on, and they’re going to make sure that the work that you’ve done in the IB before the exam is respected.”

But even more importantly, I think having to write papers, design and undertake scientific research, analyze and present ideas, deliver oral presentations, work in groups and speak a second language are all things that might not be a typical high school experience. These different experiences develop those skills that we all know are needed every day in the real world.

Regardless of those final exams, would you just reflect briefly on, as you’ve gone off to university, what IB experiences have been the most important for you in terms of preparing you for success?

Sarah: I think in the moment what seems like sleepless nights and stress and all these things IB kids complain about turns into something really quite amazing, which is going to college. And I’d heard my dad talk about this before because he has worked for the IB for so long. But really going to college and having people be afraid to go up and speak because they’d never done that in high school or having a 15-page paper seem so daunting because they’d never done it before, and going in with the right mindset—you’ve done it before and no matter how it might’ve gone, you’ve done it and you made it through—is something that is invaluable for somebody going into university no matter where you go.

I think what is really great about the IB is that it’s not just about one test. That work that you do in the IB, it isn’t taking one test in May, it’s so much more than that. It’s the internal assessments, doing all this stuff that is recorded and scary and you don’t know if you’re doing it right. A lot of what the IB is about, is the internal assessments.

Paul: Yes, and that is the message I’m hoping to share.

Sarah, do you have any final reflection on internal assessments?

Sarah: I think the important thing to note for anybody who’s reading this, is that the IB exams, the test, was one of the things that I thought the least about. The internal assessments—the papers, the commentaries and the oral presentations—all that stuff, was really my chance to show what I knew. And it made up for whatever happened with the exams. In my class, if you were scared of the test and didn’t know that you were going to get it right or the questions were too hard—you were able to prove that you knew something else somewhere else. You didn’t have to just prove it all in one moment. That is in the IB’s thinking about the student experience—the work that you do throughout the two years is just so valuable.

Paul: That’s fantastic. There you have it. So, I’m going to sign off with this message: Universities know what’s going on, and they’re going to make sure that the work that you’ve done in the IB before the exam is respected. Thank you.

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