Grade inflation in IB exam

Editorial | Mary Ma 7 Jul 2021

Although anomalies are to be expected during the pandemic, the exponential increase in the number of students attaining full marks in this year's International Baccalaureate has caused many jaws to drop.

The news that 130 Hong Kong students received full marks in IB - along with a drastic surge in the average score from 32.99 out of 45 in 2020 to nearly 39 in 2021 - certainly delighted students and parents. But it has also raised a number of questions.

The results were astonishing.

For one, it appears students are so much smarter - but have they really become so much wiser than those who graduated a year ago? I very much doubt it.

It's also plausible that exam markers have become lenient. Although the number of top scorers in Hong Kong was five times that of last year, it compared poorly to the 10-fold increase globally.

Overall, a total of 1,155 students globally attained the 45 full marks - reportedly 10 times that of a year ago.

In absolute numbers, Hong Kong is still ahead of many places in IB, accounting for about one tenth of the world's top scorers.

But, as said, if students have not become five or 10 times smarter than their peers a year ago, exam markers - or the marking scheme - must have been as many times more lenient compared to the standard last year.

It made good sense when a local education consultant pointed it out that, as education or exam authorities set out to help students impacted by the Covid pandemic, the risk of grade inflation could become excessive.

This is like what has happened in dollar quantitative easing in which an excessive supply was bound to make the money cheaper in value. An abundance of full marks in IB also renders the top grades less worthy.

Students graduating this year will stand to benefit from the IB windfall as conditional offers have already been made.

However, it could be more complicated next year because universities here as well as overseas will likely raise their admission thresholds for competitive courses in future.

In addition to achieving full marks, students may also have to demonstrate non-academic talents in their applications.

Pandemic anomalies are bound to come to an end at some point, hopefully later this year.

While the IB's dual-route approach during this pandemic will likely be replaced by a standard approach after the pandemic, it is difficult to predict whether it will as readily claw back the exam-marking QE.

Some tried to explain, saying that more bright students might have switched from the mainstream to studying IB as their parents prepared them to leave Hong Kong for overseas study.

This is hypothetical and, if true, fewer top graders will be expected in the DSE exam when the results are released later this month.

The abnormal results this year will worry some parents who expected IB curricula to be holistic.

Hopefully, as vaccination continues to pick up momentum, the pandemic will be gone.

Will public exams be back to normal? They must be.

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