School Perspective on Reporting School Exam Grades

Every year we put some substantial effort into looking at our IB and IGCSE exam results – understanding patterns, seeing trends and considering where we can make improvements. Each department does an analysis, and we triangulate against our predictions, historic data and other schools. It’s a lot of work behind the scenes, and each year we get asked to reveal the fine details, department by department.  Each year we decline to do so; and I want to write to explain the thinking behind our approach.

Our academic results are, of course, very important. We recognise that they remain key determinants of acceptance to Higher Education, and offer current and prospective parents some insight into the quality of teaching and learning at UWCSEA. And we are very, very proud of what our students achieve.

So why don’t we share everything, and make a much bigger deal about the results? What follows are a number of overlapping points that explain the way we think about this important issue; there are three very broad points and then some detailed ones.

The first overarching point is that our Mission is about preparing young people to shape a better world. Examination success is a necessary but wholly insufficient measure here – but we know that this goes against the grain of many national systems. We fear that detailed reductionist discussions will be a distraction here, and lead us to focus away from the most important things.

The second one is that like so many schools, worldwide, we are concerned about student wellbeing. Rampant perfectionism, high expectations pervasively competitive environments are taking a toll on our young people (here’s just another article on this How Life became an Endless, Terrible Competition). Reducing any narrow numerical focus on grades is part of fighting this.

The third point is that data hides individual stories. While we are proud of those achieving 45 points (top marks available worldwide), we are just as proud of the students whose 24 point Diploma was hard-earned; or those with whatever score achieved against significant adverse circumstances (try taking exams when you have been recently bereaved, or are sick). Ranking these students via the numbers of the Diploma score misses the point – as any parent who has had a child go through the IB years will know.

Given these three points, it’s been suggested that we should not report on public exams data at all; that we should have the courage of our convictions and just focus on the other great outcomes our students have. While I have some sympathy for that position, I think we also have to recognise the world we live in – that is, the market. Not something educators like to talk about, but frankly, if we cannot persuade anyone to come to our school, the Mission becomes irrelevant. And there is a great deal about which to be proud – as long as the data is understood contextually and without over-simplistic conclusions being drawn. So here are a few thoughts on how to interpret these results.

Bear in mind that:

  • Our students have a broad, holistic learning programme focussed on developing them for an uncertain future, not on nailing public exams. They undertake Activities, Service, PSE and Outdoor education when it might be easy to cram instead – but we know that the long-term benefit it worth it.
  • We are not rigorously selective academically; we look for students who will make a broad contribution at school
  • All 550 of our students take IB courses, with 99% doing the full Diploma. Many other schools only allow the most academic students to take the Diploma. So if you want to compare our results with a school where the select cohort size is 100, you’d need to take our top 100. We’re not going to publish that (for the reasons outlined here) but it is several points higher than the overall average.
  • We allow students to follow their interests and aspirations in elements of coursework and in subject choices (eg you don’t need an A or A* at GCSE to take IBHL maths, like some schools). This allows them far more opportunity to develop creativity and autonomy that we know will serve them well – but it may not maximise their grades

So, all that said, what are the grades? Well, if you really care see here.

We’re really proud to take a broad range of academic aptitudes; that each year many excel at the 40+ end; and that many excel and the 30- end. This is a great place to be; we are a school for all.   We know we could easily add a few points to our Diploma average – but the cost of doing so would be too high. That’s not who we are.

  • Rather than encourage choice, we could limit subject offerings so that students had to study at IB level what they studied before. No new subjects would be offered, so effectively, choices at 14 would carry through at 16.  
  • Rather than allow students to follow creativity and interest, we could restrict the freedom with coursework and Extended Essays so that all students were writing on a narrower range of areas. We could then explicitly teach to these areas.
  • Rather than commit to all our grade 10 students, we could refuse grade 11 places to any students whom we thought would struggle with the Diploma Programme.  Or we could require specific grades to undertake specific subjects.
  • Rather than support all, and especially those who need it most, we could have an academic filter at the end of grade 11, and by various means ensure that struggling students do not take their Diploma with us.
  • Rather than accept students who we know will make a contribution to broad school life, we could make admissions choices on academics alone
  • Rather than allow students to learn independence and an amazing experience in their school-supported independent travel week at the end of grade 11, we could use that week to cram for exams.
  • Rather than require ongoing commitment to Activities and Service, we could allow grade 12s to drop this, and thereby focus on their academics.

So that’s why we share results in the way we do. We hope that in doing so we strike the balance between transparency and valuing the right things. We hope that as they are so quantifiable they will not draw attention to the wrong place; and that we will not attract families for whom they are the be-all and end-all of education; because that’s not what we offer.

Originally posted in blog here | Follow me on Twitter @nicholas_alchin

About Nicholas Alchin

Nicholas Alchin (@nicholas_alchin) is Deputy Head and High School Principal at the United World College of SE Asia, East Campus. A sino-celtic Brit who drifted into working on building sites, drifted into the actuarial world, then chose education, he has lived and taught in values-based schools in UK, Switzerland, Kenya and Singapore. He has also held a number of roles with the IB and writes and speaks widely on educational matters. He enjoys travelling with wife Ellie, and kids Tom (13), Millie (16) and Ruth (19); also running, reading, writing, and baking bread.
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