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How to Make IB Diploma Programmes More Equitable

By Guest Blogger Loren Baron

Loren Baron is the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma program coordinator at Millbrook High School in Raleigh, N.C. He's served as president of IB Schools of North Carolina for the past three years, while teaching IB workshops and consulting for IB programs from Shanghai, China, to Wilmington, N.C. Loren will be writing about the trade-offs of running an open-access diploma program, why it's a mistake to bail out struggling students, and how parents and teachers can unintentionally enable students' damaging chase for perfection.

Ten years ago I was tapped to establish an IB Diploma Programme (DP), a demanding college-prep curriculum, in a high school in my North Carolina district. My three primary objectives were: 

  • To have a sizeable programme, reflecting opportunity for more students.
  • To build a strong programme, one that will be sought after and self-sustaining. 
  • To establish a programme that reflected the diversity of our school and afforded opportunity for all of our students. 

The third objective I anticipated to be the most challenging. The disparity of participation in the Diploma Programme among black and Latino students is no more difficult to predict than the disparity in Advanced Placement and honors-level classes across the United States. The participation gap and the resulting achievement gap are well documented. My own experience of 15 years teaching in public schools with thriving AP and IB programmes only reinforced what educators have been discussing for decades. 

Unfortunately this problem is exacerbated by the choices schools make in how they govern their Diploma Programmes. Schools frequently define success in the Diploma Programme by how many students earn the IB diploma, i.e., the Diploma Award Rate (DAR). My experience suggests a different definition. The primary value of the Diploma Programme, as with any other academically challenging class or program, is the experience. The benchmark for some students might be earning the IB diploma. But for others, it is simply finishing. For all of these students the journey through the programme is its own reward, one that will increase their academic skills, expose them to a wide range of challenging content and perspectives, increase college access and scholarship opportunities, instill greater confidence, and nurture academic ambitions. 

Schools that view earning the IB diploma as the definition of success create standards for who is likely to earn the IB diploma. The metric becomes a screening and application process that considers quantitative and qualitative measures, such as GPA, math scores, and teacher recommendations. The aim of these and other entrance requirements are certainly well intentioned. By determining who is likely to earn the IB diploma, they also identify who is likely not to earn the IB diploma, thus preventing the schools from "setting these students up for failure."

But when systems are structured to identify the academically prepared, the burden of omission falls heavily on historically underrepresented students. Again, the problem is well documented and includes correlations between economic, social, and academic success. The result of these structures is that Diploma Programmes across the United States lack meaningful levels of racial and ethnic diversity. Again, a well-documented dynamic.

The barriers to entry mentioned are by no means the sole cause of the inequities in our schools and in our academic programs, but they are ones we can control. If schools recalibrate their measure of success with less emphasis on the DAR and more emphasis on how many students make the attempt, they articulate the value of the educational experience and not simply the trophy at the end. To be sure, DAR and IB exam scores matter but as a tool for reflecting on strengths and identifying areas for growth in the programme. They also serve as indicators for colleges regarding a student's mastery of content. But when these numbers become the means by which we communicate our programme's success, they take on a meaning that promotes exclusion. Schools with lower DARs appear to be less successful, and the students who are not earning the diploma appear to have failed.

Plus, the data is only predictive. Nearly every year one or more of my students defy the data and earn the IB diploma. Conversely, every year I have students who defy the data and do not earn the IB diploma. For those who "succeed," it is not the diploma itself that changes their lives but the opportunity they were given. The demands placed on them, the encouragement given to them, the academic environment provided for them, all of these put them in a position for personal and academic growth that they would not have otherwise had. 

For those students who do not earn the IB diploma, they, too, were encouraged to work their way through an academic experience that far exceeded the demands they would have otherwise faced.  They, too, were pressed to read critically, write analytically, think evaluatively. While their "points earned" did not reach the number designated as passing, their qualitative experience is what will define their own preparation for their postsecondary experiences. It is difficult to quantify this success in the same way we measure DAR, graduation rates, test scores, etc., but those who have experienced or witnessed this success can attest to its value. 

The Diploma Programme I coordinate just graduated our seventh cohort and welcomed our ninth. During this time we have worked to not only avoid explicit barriers to our programme, but implicit ones as well. It has not been without its challenges and frustrations. Students have very different skill sets when it comes to organization and time management, writing and critical reading, and even a certain level of academic grit. Some do not adjust well to the rigor and drop the programme after the first year. Our own DAR fluctuates, usually remaining above the U.S. average and sometimes exceeding the world average, but on occasion falling below both.

But that number does not reflect the opportunities we have offered students who would not have access to a selective Diploma Programme. It does not tell the complete stories of the students who finish. One student who recently finished the programme lived much of those two years in a car with her mother. Another started the programme with a 2.93 weighted GPA, beat the odds, and earned the IB diploma. He just graduated from a competitive engineering program with a concentration in supply chain management. Yet another student nearly failed out after his first year, reflected on his experience, and readjusted his habits for year two and earned the Diploma. He is now in law school.

When we celebrate our just-above-average DAR, we do so knowing every student had a shot. We know that even those who did not earn the IB diploma are better prepared for having completed the programme. While our DAR has averaged just under 70 percent over the past six years, the graduating students continue to recommend the programme to others on average of just under 90 percent. Data is clear and can be mostly accurate in predicting who will earn the IB diploma and who will not. It fails, however, to predict who will be successful. When used to create barriers to entry for demanding academic programs, it can ensure that those who have the most to gain will not have the chance to do so.

Loren Baron

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