Problems with IB

This post is about some of the biggest problems that I have with the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma programme. I just want it to be completely clear, however, that I love the programme overall. Everything I’ve heard about alternatives; such as A-levels, the American system, the French Baccalaureate, and the Queensland system; make me think that IB is truly by far the best of the ones I know about.

At the bottom is a quick glossary of IB-related terms for those that aren’t acquainted with the IB.

EE poor marking

My first problem is more of a whinge than anything else. I haven’t got a great deal of evidence about this. But first, the backstory.

I did my EE in Music, which is my strongest subject, and the only subject I got a 7 in as my final result. I put a lot of effort into my EE, not at all leaving it to the last minute, and doing a lot of research and work well ahead of deadlines. I made sure to consult with my supervisor frequently, and took his suggestions into account and made many corrections to my EE. My supervisor was really good, very efficient and quick to get back to me after any queries. The essay was well referenced using the MLA format (IB specifies that any system may be used, as long as it is used consistently). In the end, I was predicted to get a high A for my EE.

The IB gave me a B. Keep in mind, I wasn’t predicted to be near the borderline, but to get a solid A. Another student doing a Music EE, who was far less hard working with it—frequently missing deadlines and causing trouble for their supervisor many times—also got a B. Not only a B, but one point higher than I got overall.

I’ve been told (informally) that our school would challenge my result if they had more weight behind them. If we were one of the bigger older IB schools that would have their challenge taken seriously. This result cost me one point, as I also got a B in ToK (also a relatively sketchy grade, but I have nothing to point at for that).

All this comes from a fundamental problem with the way EEs are marked. The person who marks them isn’t necessarily educated in the subject of the EE. My topic was quite esoteric, and as such would have been fairly inaccessible to a marker who does not know and understand all the music terminology. It’s really a simple fix: EEs need to be marked by people who have had extensive experience in the subject of the EE. It’s not perfect, because even then they may not have access to everything they need to understand the EE (for example, in the case of a music EE, they don’t typically have to listen to the music being studied). However, this simple change would produce much better results for all the students doing their EEs. For such a core part of the course, it’s embarrassing that they don’t have proper examiners already.

Group 6

Many fans of the British A-levels criticise IB for being too generalised. I’m not going to get into how terrible their assessment is (that’s a debate for another day, perhaps), but I will say I might agree with that criticism, albeit for a different reason. I believe IB is either too general, or not general enough.

The problem comes in with group 6, named “Arts & Electives”. The choice is either an art (Visual art, Theatre arts, Music, as well as a pilot dance programme), or an elective from groups 2 – 5. If you don’t want to do an art, you could do a second second (a third?) language, a second humanity or science, or from group 5 you could do Further Mathematics or Computer Science. When compared to all the other groups, which are mandatory, this seems unfair. Why is it required that everyone study a second language, or a humanity, but not everyone must do an art? Alternatively, why is it that someone who may want to do Further Maths or Computer Science would not then be able to take an art? In this sense, group 6 is not held as an equal to all the other groups.

But not to be a complete whinger, I do have a solution to this particular problem—or, to be specific, I have two possible solutions that would solve this problem that they could consider.

  1. They could make group 6 mandatory, like all the other groups are. Everyone would have to do a single subject from each of the six groups. This could a problem for people who want to, or for whatever reason need to, do two subjects from the same group, such as two sciences, however I believe the IB has some subjects that count for two groups, which would allow a person an alternative way to do two subjects from one group. I can’t be sure exactly how this works, as my school didn’t offer any such subjects.
  2. This is probably the better option: relax the rules a little to allow people to opt out of any one of the groups if they wish, not just group 6. If a particular person didn’t want to, they could choose not to do a Second Language, but they would then be required to do an Art, as well as groups 1, 3, 4, and 5. Instead of doing their Second Language, in this case they could fill it with a subject from any of the other groups, such as a second Science, Further Mathematics, or even a second Art.

Either of these solutions would solve the inequality that The Arts face under IB, but the second would by far be the better one for students, giving them more choice in their subjects, whilst still maintaining most of the IB Diploma’s prized well-roundedness.

“Core” weighting

IB has a concept of what it calls its “core”. This is the EE, Theory of Knowledge, and CAS, which are done by all diploma candidates. The thing is, although they’re core in name, they certainly don’t get treated as core. For the EE and ToK, a maximum of just three points are available, and CAS is worth no points: it’s pass or fail. With CAS, this means a student that just barely does enough after much nagging by their supervisor is on equal footing to one who puts a huge amount of effort into it throughout the two years on their own initiative.

In my school, we spent two periods a week on ToK, as well as two a week on CAS (SL subjects got 4 periods, and HL got 6). We were also given some amount of time at school for the EE. Needless to say, all of these also require a great deal of time outside of school, especially the EE. For all this, why are these core requirements only worth 3 points, compared to 7 for all normal subjects? I propose that the matrix for ToK and the EE be changed to a 5 point maximum, such as the one shown below:

A 5 4 3 2 2
B 4 3 2 2 1
C 3 2 2 1 1
D 2 2 1 1 0
E 2 1 1 0 Fail

The only part I would strongly state is that an AA would be the only way to get 5, and two Es is the only automatic fail (as it currently is). The rest could be changed, and someone more skilled than myself could probably work out a better system than I.

The advantage of this system, as well as rewarding effort in these subjects more than it currently does, is that it allows for a slightly finer gradation in the marks awarded, as shown by the 5 for an AA, but a 4 for AB, whereas they were previously both awarded 3.

Furthermore, I would award up to 2 points for CAS. This way people who put more effort into their CAS programme would be rewarded more than those who barely do enough. Under this the grades available would be a fail, 0, 1, or 2. Students who fail to complete their CAS would fail their diploma, as is already the case, but then students who only barely do enough would pass, but add 0 points to their total. For achieving a greater level with their CAS, students could get 1 point, and for going above and beyond what is required, they could gain themselves 2 extra points. How these gradations would be determined I am not exactly sure, but my suggestion would be:

Fail Failed to reach the level required to pass
0 As previously: reached the minimum required level to pass
1 Did a good amount of extra CAS work, but failed to document correctly
2 Did a good amount of extra CAS work, with thorough documentation

Under this system, the core requirements would, combined, be worth the same as any individual subject, bringing the total maximum possible IB points to 49. At the moment many students who do incredibly well in their main subjects slack off at the core, and fail to put any effort into them. I don’t believe it is fair that this is not accurately reflected in their scores, and my proposed solution would solve the problem. Someone in my year got 42 points, including only a 1 for their EE and ToK. They received a C and a D, I think. They also were not very involved in CAS, so under this system they would have gotten 42 or 43 out of 49 (86% or 88%), which looks much less impressive than 42 / 45 (93%).

If the IBO wanted, they could find some way of giving out one more point, to bring the total to a nice round 50, but I can’t see exactly why that would be necessary. Perhaps they could give schools the option (heavily moderated, of course, especially in the larger school known for doing shady things in order to boost their marks) to give students who they think deserve a bonus point for all-round attitude and effort in school and school life/community. This isn’t a central part to my argument, though, and I would be perfectly happy with a score out of 49.


IB: International Baccalaureate, the high school programme run by the IBO (International Baccalaureate Organisation). When used here, I am usually talking about the IB Diploma programme.

IB Diploma programme: The main IB programme, where students must take 6 subjects, one in each of six groups—Language A1 (mainly literature), Second Language, Individuals and Societies (Humanities and social sciences like Geography, History, Economics, and Psychology), Experimental Sciences (the main three: Physics, Chemistry, and Biology, but also Design Technology and a few others), Mathematics and Computer Science (CS can only be taken in addition to a normal Mathematics course, however), The Arts & Electives. Three of these must be taken at Higher Level, and three at Standard Level (4 HL and 2 SL is also an option, though not commonly taken). In addition to this, students must complete a CAS, EE, and ToK “core”.

CAS: Creativity, Action, Service. Currently, CAS is pass or fail. If you fail CAS, you are automatically not awarded your IB Diploma. Students have to undertake a variety of activities that meet these criteria. Creativity is things like the arts and languages, Action is sports and physical activities, Service is community service, and helping people. Previously, 50 hours of each was required, but now the requirement is simply to have put in a consistent amount of work into each of these, and to be able to show documentation (photos, videos, and written reflections).

EE: Extend Essay. A research essay with a 4000 word limit that each student must complete in a subject of their choice. It does not have to be in a subject they take, or even a subject offered by the school, although this is recommended. Students are assigned a supervisor within the school who can help them and give them advice. Assessed externally via a specific marking grid, although the criteria are quite vague in many cases.

ToK: Theory of Knowledge. This is a basic philosophy-like course about understanding how we know things, teaching IB students to question their understanding of the world. It is assessed via an internal presentation in groups of up to 5 (individual presentations are also allowed), and an externally marked essay on one of a group of assigned titles.