A Test Worth Teaching To

The IB's Course Guides and Exams Make a Good Marriage

By Robert Rothman

At a time when teachers in America are concerned that an excessive focus on tests threatens to drive out effective teaching and learning, the International Baccalaureate offers a counterweight: a program where examinations encourage high levels of instruction and achievement.

Many people have heard of the IB, but what is it? The International Baccalaureate is a prestigious program developed in 1968 to accommodate the needs of mobile foreign diplomats. As these diplomats moved from post to post, they wanted their children to have access to a school program that would be consistent across locations and that, importantly, would prepare their children to pass the rigorous university entrance examinations back home.

In the last decade, the IB has grown rapidly in the United States; currently, some 400 high schools in this country offer the program. Some of the growth occurred during the 1980s, when schools in the post-Nation at Risk period sought to add rigor to the high school curriculum. More recently, the program has grown because educators see it as consistent with the standards movement’s emphasis on challenging expectations for student performance.

Even though it remains a specialized program, it offers a number of lessons to educators and public officials who are implementing standards-based reforms in an effort to raise the level of rigor for all students. With its challenging external examinations, its well-planned course guides tied to those exams, and its extensive training for teachers, the IB represents a good example of an effective, instructionally sound, exam-based system.

A close look at the IB provides some insight into issues that reformers throughout the United States are confronting. The IB shows ways to use exams in the classroom to model and encourage effective instruction. With detailed course syllabi that allow teachers to choose which topics to cover and carefully aligned exams that allow students to choose which questions to answer, it suggests one way to design courses that strike a balance between breadth and depth and between knowledge of facts and the ability to understand concepts. It shows how teachers can use their judgment within a common framework to craft a course of study that will cover the necessary content while leaving room for engaging lessons. Above all, it shows that, despite fears among teachers that external mandates can stifle their practice, external exams and a common curriculum can strengthen teaching and improve instruction throughout a school.

Consistent with Research

With its external exams tied to a challenging curriculum, the IB program appears consistent with the types of systems Cornell University economist John Bishop has found are associated with high levels of student achievement. In a study that analyzed the results of several international assessments, Bishop controlled for the participating countries’ wealth and found that students in countries with curriculum-based external exit examinations significantly outperformed those in countries that lacked such exams. He also found that students in New York State, which for many years administered Regents’ Examinations for students wishing to earn specialized diplomas, outperformed those in other states on the SAT.

Bishop argues that curriculum-based exit examinations help motivate students to work hard in school because they reward high achievement in academic subjects. At the same time, Bishop suggests that such exams make it more likely that schools will improve curriculum and instruction. Because the exams offer a payoff for such improvements—more students doing well—parents and taxpayers will be more likely to support the improvements. In addition, Bishop says, such exams can induce improvements in the support of instruction, such as professional development around subject-matter content.

The IB Programme also appears consistent with research on learning that emphasizes the importance of clear expectations for student performance. In a synthesis of learning research, Lauren B. Resnick, director of the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh, suggests that making the goals of learning clear—and providing vivid examples of what "good" work looks like—help students by pointing them toward excellence.

By making explicit the criteria on which their work will be judged, the IB Programme makes expectations for performance very clear. Students say such clarity provides a focus for their work. "Here, we know what we have to get done," says Dylan Moore, a senior at Schenley High School in Pittsburgh.

Exams Worth Teaching To

Worldwide, 80 percent of those who attempt the IB diploma earn it. In America, an IB diploma often means college scholarships and even up to a year’s worth of college credit. How does IB produce such success? To teachers involved with the program, the answer is obvious: the IB’s curriculum-based exams and course materials. By following the course of study set forth by IB and preparing students for the exams, teachers say they ensure that students know their subjects well and are able to use their knowledge to solve problems and develop new insights. Unlike many standardized tests currently administered in American schools, teachers consider the IB exams worth teaching to.

Daniel Blackmon, an IB history teacher at Coral Gables Senior High School in Florida, begins planning his IB courses by looking at the course of study and past exams, all of which are essay questions that require students to demonstrate substantial knowledge and understanding of the subjects and strong writing skills. (Click here for excerpts from the 2000 IB standard level history exam.) He uses the structure and content of these exams as a guide for developing his class syllabus and as a primary source of assignments for developing students throughout the school year. By the time Blackmon’s students face the IB history exam, they have already prepared dozens of similar essays. (To learn more about how Daniel Blackmon uses the exam in his courses, click here.)

Teachers frequently assign students exercises that mirror those on the IB exams. This is a form of "teaching to the test," a practice generally frowned upon because of the narrow scope of most standardized tests. Yet teachers consider teaching to the IB exam worthwhile because it is good instruction. Jane Greenaway, the IB coordinator at Coral Gables, explains that the tests’ emphasis on instruction also influences students’ attitudes about classwork. "Students don’t put up with busy work," she says. "It needs to be meaningful. They get that from the exams." The exam preparation exercises develop students’ ability to write, to back up statements with evidence, and to draw connections among topics in a discipline or across disciplines. These are the kinds of abilities teachers want students to develop, and the IB exam encourages teachers to design lessons to foster such skills.

For example, students at Schenley High School are constantly marshalling evidence and arguing persuasively—skills they need to demonstrate on the exams. During a biology lesson at Schenley High School, students did not simply have to identify the characteristics of an ideal cell; they had to write a brief essay explaining why the cell they modeled was ideal.

Teachers are often quite explicit with their students about how a particular lesson or project will prepare them for the IB exam. Denise Rahne, an English teacher at Patrick Henry High School in Minneapolis, for example, prepares a detailed syllabus each semester that shows the texts that students will be studying and the IB assessment topics based on those texts. Students know, for instance, that the IB language assessments will include an option for a comparative study of two world literature works. In her class, they will be prepared for that portion of the exam by studying three books selected by Rahne: Medea, Oedipus Rex, and The Stranger.

Rahne, like many IB teachers, also provides her students with IB materials that show the students the criteria by which their exams will be evaluated and how previous students succeeded or failed. Rahne and her students find IB’s school reports particularly helpful. School reports are written by IB examiners for individual schools. Based on the materials submitted to IB to be graded, these reports clarify the expectations that students will have to meet in order to achieve IB’s high standards.

Steve Duesterbeck, a history teacher at Henry, says the school reports have helped him and other teachers adjust their instruction to improve students’ performance. Four years ago, he notes, students’ exam scores were lower than in previous years, and the school report provided by IB suggested that the students did not sufficiently justify their statements. In response, Duesterbeck required students to provide at least three supporting statements for each assertion in every assignment and paper. Since then, he notes, some 200 of his students have taken the exams and not a single one has scored poorly.

"As a teacher, you can be missing something and not realize it," says Jane Kostik, the co-coordinator of the IB program at Henry. "When you get a report like that, you know what to look for."

Teachers also explicitly prepare students for the Internal Assessments they take as part of the IB Diploma Programme. Unlike the final course examinations, the Internal Assessments are completed during the school year and can take various forms—from written essays to oral presentations to musical performances and art pieces to mathematics and science projects. In history, for example, the IB syllabus suggests diverse approaches such as a genealogical study, an analysis of an historical database, a report based on an archaeological site, or a traditional research paper. The criteria for evaluating the project are common across all IB schools.

To help prepare students for the Internal Assessments, teachers work with students to select a project, go over the criteria with them, and practice with them before the "real" assessment. For example, an Internal Assessment in IB English asks students to prepare an oral presentation on the writing technique in a work of literature. The week before the assessment, students at Schenley met in small groups to discuss one such technique—the use of imagery—in The Scarlet Letter, a book assigned for the class, and took oral quizzes to feel confident about speaking.

As with the external exams, teachers feel that preparing students for the Internal Assessments represents good instruction. "If someone stands up and talks to you about Hamlet, or how a problem in math works out, then you know he really understands," says Joseph Mulcahy, the IB coordinator at Benjamin Banneker High School in Washington, DC.

Structure, Not Rigidity

While the exams provide considerable guidance for IB teachers, the program also includes syllabi that outline courses of study to prepare students for the exams. This type of common syllabus for all schools—in which teachers are given certain topics to cover in mathematics and certain events and themes to emphasize in history, for example—is typical in most high-achieving countries, but rare in the United States.

Teachers in the IB program acknowledge that the curriculum is more prescriptive than they are accustomed to, but they do not object. "Teachers do need to follow the [IB] curriculum, that’s true. I can’t go off on my own tangent," says Jane Greenaway of Coral Gables High School. "But the student gets a really well thought-out curriculum, one that might be better than one I can think up."

Greenaway and others note that the IB’s course of study guides set parameters within which teachers can use their own skills to design a creative and challenging instructional program. The course of study for history, for example, includes six topics and outlines major themes and materials for more detailed study. For example, under the topic "causes, practices, and effects of war," the syllabus suggests the following as possible study materials: the Algerian War, the Arab-Israeli Wars, the Chinese Civil Wars, the First and Second World Wars, the Korean War, the Mexican Revolution, the Nigerian Civil War, the Spanish Civil War, and the Vietnam War. Based on this type of information, teachers design a program that prepares students for the exams. Since the exams include choices, IB advises teachers not to cover all six of the history topics. More importantly, such a program has intrinsic value, as teachers and students have opportunities to explore their interests while completing a diversified history curriculum.

Such an approach is designed to strike a balance between breadth and depth. Although students are not expected to know every fact about 20th-century world history, they are expected to have sufficient command of relevant facts to illustrate several of the major themes set forth in the course of study.

In designing a class syllabus based on the course of study, it is common for teachers to consult past exam questions. They also rely on their knowledge of their students and choose topics that might be engaging to them. "We cover as much as we can, content-wise, of what the IB requires," says Duesterbeck of Henry High School.

For example, Duesterbeck knows from the IB history syllabus and previous exams that students will be required to display detailed knowledge of at least two regions of the world. He also makes sure to include the Vietnam War, which is of particular interest to his students, many of whom are Hmong immigrants.

Duesterbeck also plans his curriculum with Rahne, the English teacher, so that they can coordinate their lessons. Students in Duesterbeck’s history class will be studying the Vietnam War at the same time Rahne is teaching Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a novel about the war. Rahne’s class reading list also includes The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh, a Vietnamese novelist, in addition to Shakespeare, Steinbeck, and Whitman.

To help students learn material in depth, the curriculum allows time for students to prepare long-term projects. In one recent history class at Schenley, for example, students met in small groups to prepare skits on topics related to World War II, such as a café discussion of the attack on Pearl Harbor or a radio broadcast of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. In the skits, students would have to demonstrate that they knew the facts about the event the skits were describing, as well as understand the public reaction to the event and its significance. The teacher, Barak Naveh, says such lessons are not only engaging to students, they also develop their understanding in ways that will help them select and answer the challenging questions on the exam. "My students won’t be able to answer all 25 [questions on the exam], but they will be able to answer two in depth," Naveh says. "The IB exam lends itself to activities like this."

Yet this does not mean that Naveh’s class, nor any IB class, is devoted solely to long-term projects; IB exams require students to demonstrate both their knowledge and their deep understanding. Teachers lecture, assign readings, and quiz students on their factual knowledge. During the same class period that Naveh assigned the skits, for example, he delivered a half-hour lecture on the war in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945 and the events leading up to the dropping of the atomic bomb.

Training for Teachers

In addition to providing exams and materials, the IB program also offers training for teachers in regional workshops held during the summer and periodically throughout the school year. As part of their application to participate in the program, schools need to demonstrate that teachers who will be involved in the program will take part in the training workshops.

The workshops familiarize teachers with the exams and the detailed syllabi. Because the syllabi change every four or five years, teachers regularly return to learn about the updates. Perhaps more importantly, the workshops provide opportunities for teachers from different schools and different states to meet to discuss how to teach. These opportunities are rare in the United States, where teachers lack a common curriculum and thus a common vocabulary for discussions of pedagogy. But they are frequent occurrences in countries like Japan, where teachers regularly get together to develop lessons based on the common curriculum.

"Teachers are all coming from the same experiences," says Jane Kostik, the IB co-coordinator at Henry. "They know what’s expected and what kinds of things to teach. They share with each other what ways work best."

Some schools have arranged for their entire faculties to receive IB training. Joseph Mulcahy of Banneker High School in Washington, DC, says the training is useful even if teachers are not teaching in the program, particularly in a small school. "If they are not teaching IB English, they are teaching students who are going into IB English," he says.

To further assist teachers, schools in a number of states have formed informal networks. The networks provide an opportunity for coordinators from IB schools to discuss issues of mutual concern. They also provide additional opportunities for teachers to meet to talk about the curriculum.

Mary Edna Tookey of Chicago’s Lincoln Park High School says her school’s participation in one such network, which includes schools throughout the Great Lakes region, has been invaluable. "It’s a chance to meet with colleagues from all over the Midwest, exchange ideas, and get help."

Student Support and Pre-IB Preparation

Teachers and administrators acknowledge that, with its rigorous academic demands, the IB is a stretch for many students, particularly those who lack the preparation and discipline the program requires. And although the International Baccalaureate Organization does not have any restrictions on which students can participate in IB, some schools restrict entry to the IB to students who can demonstrate—through test scores or other measures—that they are capable of handling the work.

Some schools offer students the option of taking selected IB courses, rather than the complete program, much as students take individual Advanced Placement courses. IB officials discourage this approach, however, and many program coordinators prefer the full Diploma Programme. "The IB is a well-rounded program," says Kostik. "You don’t expect students to do super-well in every one of the six subjects, but you want students to have experience in all subjects."

Schools also provide support to help students through the program. At Henry High School, for example, where three-fourths of the students come from low-income homes, administrators recognize that many students lack the home support and academic preparation to allow them to move smoothly through a demanding curriculum. In response, the school opens its media center at 6 a.m. to provide students a quiet place to study, something they may lack at home.

In addition, Henry created after-school programs and a Saturday school, particularly for ninth- and 10th-graders preparing to take IB courses. The extended learning time enables students to work on their writing, as well as on study skills like note-taking and time management. The school encourages students who are struggling to participate in the Saturday program; others come on their own, and as many as 50 or 60 students take part. Seniors often volunteer as tutors, and most earn credit toward their community service requirement for doing so.

Teachers at Henry also begin preparing students for IB exams long before they will sit for them. Duesterbeck, for example, begins assigning lengthy papers to his ninth-grade pre-IB students, many of whom had written little, if at all, before coming to Henry, to help them develop their skills by the time they take the exams.

As a result of that kind of support system, nearly all 10th-graders who indicated that they plan to enter the IB program do so in 11th grade.

IB for the Elementary and Middle Years

Many teachers have noted that some students, particularly in urban schools, would benefit from stronger preparation before entering high school. Mulcahy, of Banneker High School in Washington, DC, says many students come to the school without any background in a foreign language. To do well on the IB foreign language exam they need to learn in four years what would probably take five years to learn. Similarly, students taking algebra for the first time in ninth grade have to make up a lot of time to prepare for the mathematics exams. "The key to success of many high school programs is what went on in middle school," says Mulcahy.

*  *  *

Partly in recognition of the need for early preparation, in 1994 the IB organization created a Middle Years Programme. Suzanne Knowlton of IB North America notes that the Middle Years Programme quickly became so popular that the organization temporarily halted new applications until it could develop structures to accommodate the demand.

Some U.S. school systems have found it difficult to adopt the Middle Years Programme because it extends from grade six to grade 10, which can span three schools. Knowlton acknowledges that the program, as designed, is difficult to implement in the U.S. system, but says that many districts have overcome that problem by getting high schools and middle schools to work together to integrate the program. "The good news is that institutions that have rarely spoken to each other, have to cooperate with the program," she says.

The IB organization in 1997 also created a Primary Years Programme for grades K-5. Although this program is new, it too is spreading in North America, according to Knowlton. Currently 83 schools in North America are participating in the Middle Years Programme, and 12 are participating in the Primary Years Programme.

Evidence of Success

One of the most extensive studies on the effectiveness of the program was conducted at the University of Florida, which enrolls more IB diploma holders than any other institution in the world. (In large part, this is because of a state policy that provides full scholarships for IB diploma holders.) William Kolb, the director of admissions at the University of Florida, says he undertook the study to provide evidence to validate the university’s policy of granting second-year status to students with IB diplomas.

"The faculty has no desire to give away credit," Kolb says. "So we’ve done a number of studies to satisfy the faculty that students coming from an IB program are able to compete at a sophomore level with those who have gone through freshman year at the University of Florida."

Kolb’s analyses found that, in most cases, IB students earned higher grades in second-year courses than students who had taken freshman courses at the university. In addition, IB students complete graduate studies at a higher rate than regular students. Kolb hypothesizes that the amount of writing in the IB program gives students who have gone through it a leg up. "We strongly suspect that these people have done far more writing, on average, than the rest of students who come into the freshman class," Kolb says. "I don’t think college writing is quite as frightening to them."

Though anecdotal support for the program is substantial, there is little formal evidence beyond Kolb’s work. Recognizing the lack of research, the IB organization has established a research wing, based at the University of Bath in England, to commission studies on the program. One study of IB courses in mathematics and science was recently released by the National Research Council. While this was a largely favorable review, student outcomes such as performance in college were not examined.

Challenges of Implementation

Interest in the IB remains strong, but many school systems have faced challenges in implementation. One significant obstacle is the cost of the program. Participation in the program requires funds for training and transportation to the training workshops; the time of the IB coordinator, who usually has reduced teaching time; fees for participation ($7,785 per school) and assessments ($540 per student over the two years of the IB Diploma Programme); and postage to mail exam booklets and audio and videotapes to scoring centers around the world (approximately $600 a year per school). In all, an IB program could cost as much as $50,000 a year, depending on the size of the school. Schools typically cover these costs through a combination of district, school, and grant funds, though some schools charge student fees. At least two states, California and Florida, subsidize the costs for schools to encourage more schools to take part in the program, and a number of districts do so as well. But not all do. In Pittsburgh, Schenley High School pays for teachers’ training but requires students to pay their own participation and examination fees. As a result, many Schenley students are unable to take part in the full Diploma Programme. In addition, the school is unable to afford some of IB’s additional materials, such as school reports.

Also, the calendar of American high schools makes it difficult to accommodate the program. U.S. schools typically have to cover the IB requirements in a 180-day year, compared with more than 200 days in some European and Asian nations. Further, American school schedules often make it difficult for IB teachers to find time to work together to coordinate their instructional programs. But many schools have found ways to create common planning time for all IB teachers in a particular subject area, if not across disciplines. In addition, schools have used faculty meetings and other common times to coordinate IB instruction.

One potentially complicating factor—state testing requirements—does not appear to pose a challenge for IB programs, but it is somewhat fatiguing for IB students. Teachers say students in IB classes tend to do well on standardized tests and they do not have to adjust their instruction to accommodate the tests. However, some teachers say the time taken up by testing eats into instructional time; they point out that students see the state tests, on top of IB tests, as burdensome. "Students are sick of taking tests," says Jane Greenaway of Coral Gables. To address this, Virginia students are able to substitute IB exams for the state’s Standards of Learning exams. The Virginia Department of Education is concerned with having students demonstrate that they have met high standards, and IB exams offer ample opportunities to do just that.

Overall, those involved with IB seem enthusiastic about the program and have confidence in its rigor. As Daniel Blackmon put it, "The more I work with IB, the more committed to the program I become. Regular curriculum revisions (every five years) force me to continue to study and grow personally. IB also places a high value on learning how to learn, which is an essential skill. IB is a great program—vital, growing, and relevant. I definitely want to teach IB the rest of my life."


Robert Rothman is an education writer based in Washington, DC, and a consultant for the Annenberg Institute for School Reform and other organizations. He has worked at the National Research Council and the National Center on Education and the Economy and is a former reporter and editor for Education Week.

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Becoming an IB School
To participate in an IB program, schools must submit to IB a detailed and comprehensive application. The IB organization reviews the application and sends a team to the school to determine if the school can implement the program effectively; the organization may recommend some changes in the school’s curriculum or instructional offerings. For example, Benjamin Banneker High School in Washington, DC, began in late 2001 to upgrade its science laboratories because the IB organization considered them inadequate for the program.

The final decision on a school’s application is made by the IB Director General in Geneva. If the organization accepts the application, the school enters a "year of affiliation," during which the school begins to implement the program on a trial basis and makes the changes recommended by the IB organization. The following year, if the school makes the changes, it can award IB diplomas according to IB rules and standards.

For more information on becoming an IB school, contact IB North America at ibna@ibo.org or 212/696-4464.

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