May 2021 exams – making the most of the opportunity

Timothy Hoffmann

Since March of last year, May 2021 IB exam takers have been through an unprecedented learning journey – reduced contact time at school, ongoing uncertainty about exams proceedings, adapting to remote learning and of course potential health impacts both to yourselves and your families. Without question, this has been far from ideal preparation for your final IB exams.

We have been keeping an extremely close eye on both the IBO’s announcements, but also on what students have been saying, both those we support through tuition and courses, and other voices through Reddit and other forums. We’re aware of the mixed emotions students are experiencing about the recent IB announcement of the dual assessment route for May 2021. Some students clearly feel hard done by that the IBO had decided to proceed with exams when many other examination bodies have cancelled exams.


Having reviewed the official IBO documentation, spoken to DP coordinators, parents, students and teachers, we feel we’ve now developed a rounded view of the decisions which were made, and how they impact you. With all of this in mind, we’d like to try and put your worries slightly at ease and suggest why taking exams may in fact be a good thing. We’re acutely aware that every student is different, and many of you will have been affected more adversely than others, so these views are formulated on an aggregated view of all students and should be viewed as such. 


It is vital to stress that the IB will remain impartial to students irrespective of the route available to them, neither exam route nor non-exam route will be disadvantaged. The below is written to support students worried about undertaking exams, though of course there will be students going down the non-exam route with similar concerns, and we will publish more information on this in due course.


  1. May 2020 results – were good!


Despite all the turbulence, the final results IB students were awarded, which can be seen in the plot below, were higher than they’ve been in many many years. (NB: for those who haven’t seen it before, this was drawn from the May 2021 statistical bulletin. The key take-aways are:

  1. The average score went up (31.34 vs. 29.65)
  2. The pass rate went up (85.18% vs. 77.81%!!!) 
  3. More students than ever before achieved 40+ points (9,779 vs. 6,601).

There were many reasons for this, but the main take-away for you as May 2021 exam takers is that the IBO is not working against you, they are trying to work with you to give as fair an assessment process as possible, believing the exam route gives a more rounded appraisal than the school PG route after all the kick-back after the May 2020 results. In the same way they were perhaps overly fair in May 2020, it is likely they will follow a similar process this year and it is likely May 2021 results will be brought in line with May 2020 results as a consequence. 


Verdict: Good news.

  1. IBO recommendations around exam and non-exam route
    1. The IBO’s official communications have said, almost explicitly, that the exam route and non-exam route results will be delivered such that they are effectively the same. This means that, if students on average score poorly on the exam itself, they will simply assign a correction to the exam results to ensure they align with the non-exam route, and indeed last year’s results. It is likely that this was always going to be the case, but means that you don’t need to worry about your individual score on an exam, and rather your comparative score to the global student population, much as you would have done in a non-COVID year.


Verdict: Good news.


  1. You have control of your final results
    1. This, perhaps, is one of the most important benefits of taking the exams. We heard some horror stories in May 2020 about students who received results through the IBO algorithm, which simply didn’t align with their hopes or expectations, in some cases by 7 points. In that instance, the student ultimately (other than using the EUR method) has no control over the final result. Exams, despite the inherent stress, are as objective as you can hope for – it is not reliant on a person’s opinion, there is a mark scheme that examiners need to follow which means you have far more control over the final score. Yes, your studies have been significantly disrupted, but with more than two months still to prepare, you can still fare very well on a comparative basis with your global peers.


  1. Exams will be easier
    1. The IBO already released information around a reduced May exam session back in November (more here) but this has been further bolstered by the recent announcement that they will make further efforts to make exams as accessible as possible. This means you won’t have to open an exam paper worrying that you may not be able to answer any questions – they will have moderated them to be accessible based on the reduced learning time students have experienced. This is especially true for Maths, which is being examined for the first time. The IB will no doubt deliver more information on exactly which modifications will be made to the Maths exams (at the moment, it is ‘in session mitigations’), so stay tuned.


Verdict: probably good news


  1. Motivation
    1. Although this will be met with mixed responses, the exams do serve as an important motivator for you. You’ve worked so hard for such a long time, and if exams were suddenly taken away, it would be hard to stay motivated through these final few months of school. It is important to frame this experience in a positive way, especially looking forward to university, your career etc.


Verdict: probably good news


  1. Education
    1. There are extremely clear benefits to the experience of an extended assessment session, especially when thinking ahead to university. Do you want to have to go through your first extended examination session in your first year of university, without having the mental fortitude developed during an IB session? Seen on a more macro level across your full educational journey, there are significant benefits to you as a learner. 


Verdict: Good news, if framed correctly


And so, the overall verdict and our advice?


In previous years, you know what to expect with final exams. You review past papers, you have a good sense of your level from your school mocks, predicted grades etc. This year, you will all have been affected in markedly different ways, there is no denying that. There are arguments both ways, but it is my belief that it is in your favour to take the exams if the option is made available to you for the reason above.


Having spoken with key stakeholders at all levels, it is clear that (easier, reduced format) exams have many benefits over a system where you have far less control, far less engagement and ultimately the benefits to your education are lower. 


We’re extremely keen to hear your thoughts, so if time does allow please write to us with your thoughts – how have you been impacted at your school? How do you plan to prepare if you are going down the exam route?


What to do next:


  1. Work with your school to ensure your IAs are of the highest possible quality, you know for sure that these will count for a significant proportion of your results.
  2. Your predicted grades MIGHT still count (if for example government guidelines force exam cancellations the day before exams), and so there is a balancing act between just studying for exams, and being aware there is still a small chance exams may not proceed in your area. If this does happen, IAs + PGs will make up your result.
  3. Stay positive – there is no denying this is a stressful time for you as students, try to keep a balanced view on things and remember that you will not be defined by your results. You have the option of retakes next year should you choose it, and every university and employer in the world is aware of how you’ve been impacted as students.