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Be Better: An IB Model for All Education

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I’m in full-on end-of-the-year mode, and this year I’m also an IB examiner for the first time. What that means is that I’m assessing work from IB students from schools all over the world against set criteria established by the IB. For example, IB students in my course, IB English A: Literature, will take two comprehensive exams next week with tens of thousands of other students, who will take the same exam in their schools on the same day. Those exams will then be sent off to teachers around the globe who are “examiners,” grading the exams against the standard criteria the IB sets for all courses. While grading is always subjective, the criteria is fixed; what is a 5/5 in my school is exactly what is a 5/5 in every other IB school around the world.

While the IB’s 60,000+ candidate students around the world is a small population compared to, say, the whole population of American public school students, I think they have a good lesson to offer on a simple scale: Have clear, simple criteria for each major assessment at course/grade level against which all teachers and students can assess. And then assess against them in multiple ways. The IB model has some assessments made by the teacher, with a sample externally moderated (re-assessed by someone outside the school) to check for consistency. Grades are usually changed, and feedback to the teacher is given on how to align more closely with the IB criteria next time. The IB model also asks examiners to assess all exams without any prior knowledge of the students they are examining — it is only their exams they are evaluating against the set criteria. While this isn’t a perfect system, it does ensure a consistent standard worldwide — a 7 (IB’s top score) is a 7, whether that student is in Alabama or Bangalore, public or private.

The best-run schools have moderation teams themselves; I was lucky to be part of one in Qatar, where we moderated student work on a near-weekly basis. Any time a student felt a grade was unfair, we simply brought it to the moderating team to check for alignment. If the team agreed with the teacher’s grade (or thought it was too generous, even), then the student accepted the grade much more easily. If the team agreed with the student, the grade was changed.

But any school or team of teachers could take a tip from this style of assessment and moderation promoted by the IB and adopt some of its practices in-house. A few ideas:

1. A team of seventh-grade language arts teachers might decide to give a cornerstone assessment of a persuasive essay. With a clear rubric outlining the criteria, they assign the assessment, designing backward from the criteria. Teachers then assess their students and then the team leader or department head selects a random sample from each teacher, that is then anonymously graded by another teacher or two in the group. Seeing how closely the grades align among teachers assessing the same work is a wonderful PD exercise in and of itself, not to mention the benefits for students.

2. Schools in which teachers teach the same content and assessments across courses or grade levels could divide up grading large assessments randomly, so that a teacher in that system is sometimes grading her own students and often times grading other teachers’ students. Of course, this only works if it’s designed like the IB — criteria are set and all teachers are teaching to that criteria.

3. Individual teachers wishing for more alignment and feedback can pair up as feedback partners. Two Spanish or history teachers might pair up and grade a select sample of each other’s assessments. Where they don’t align or agree on their grading, they could talk it through and take any discrepancies to the department head, team leader, or principal for further feedback. 

4. Try this with students — students “moderate” anonymous papers or class presentations in teams using a clear, definitive rubric, with a majority rules approach. It’s a wonderful exercise in helping students see the standards themselves. It can also be quite instructive for teachers to see when students all think something is “good” or “bad” that the teacher disagrees with. Often this is due to a misunderstanding on the students’ parts that the teacher might not normally catch.

The key, of course, is that the criteria needs to be agreed upon and bought into at the top. I don’t have any say in what the IB should assess on its Individual Oral Commentary, the assessment I’m moderating this month. I might like to assess them more on their knowledge of the poem extract they are explicating than on their language use, but I don’t have that authority. It is not an exercise in finding the prefect criteria or the best rubric. It’s an exercise in aligning standards and using those results to good effect, perhaps for modifying the criteria to make it better.

And a word of caution about rubrics — it’s easy to confuse rubrics with grading scales. The six-traits model, for example, is a wonderful assessment tool but it’s often used as a numerical rubric that churns out a grade based on a percentage x/36 = y%. In my opinion, this is not an effective use of an otherwise solid method. Like the IB, teachers can decide a range (a/36 – b/36 = A; c/36 – f/36 = A-; etc.) or some other method for turning the rubric into a numerical grade. Straight percentages drawn from rubrics are often too harsh in my experience.

Share some of your experience with this style of moderation below in the comments section — would love to hear any ideas on how this has been successfully done in your school. And go ahead and give it a try and see what kinds of interesting conversations come up.

2 thoughts on “Be Better: An IB Model for All Education

  1. Alexis, I also teach in an IB World School outside Philadelphia. I find the IB system of exams a breath of fresh air in the burdensome state assessments. The IB requires multiple measures of knowledge in a course, and its NEVER just a multiple choice exam.

    As for student moderation of work, I have also found this important. Students will never fully understand a rubric unless they grade themselves or others based on it. The IB History Paper 2 rubric is vague, but practice and exemplars help students understands how to write clearly and score well.

    Thanks for sharing your comments on the IB.

    Justin Staub

  2. One of the most valuable things about grading for IB or NBPTS or state open-ended writing or problem-solving assessments is that you learn inter-rater reliability.

    I remember hearing over and over again, “Go back to the language of the rubric.” If we start subjectively saying, “This looks high compared to others in my class,” then we are not able to give the specific, constructive feedback that will communicate to students their next level of learning.

    Great ideas for improving grading practices at the school level!

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