Holistic Assessments Really Do Work

As I’ve mentioned in some of my blog posts in the past, I did the International Baccalaureate program in high school. And so, whenever in the classroom we are talking about the issues of standardized testing, I can’t help but think of my experience in IB assessments. The main critiques that I can remember that the class seemed to agree on are:

  • Tests are too long.
  • Some don’t encourage higher level thinking (we used the Accelerated Reading program as an example for this)
  • They aren’t varied enough to make it more equitable for a diverse background of students

We also talked about some solutions to these issues, including:

  • Making a series of shorter tests
  • Using different kinds of assessment (instead of just multiple choice, having essays that could better show a students knowledge)
  • Using a more portfolio-like structure to showcase student work

These are all, in a way, incorporated into IB testing. The way IB grades (similar to AP scores, these scores would not impact the grade in the class that would show up on a high school transcript) work is that they are made up of two different categories: Internal and External Assessments. Although the amount varies, Internal Assessments are weighted less than External Assessments (the difference between these two is the type of questions being asked of the student and who is grading them). In my experience, having taken the SAT, the ACT, AP exams, and IB exams I can say that the IB exams were the most accurate assessment of what I knew. Each exam for each class was different, so here’s a breakdown of the five major classes that I had personal experience with:

  • IB History
    • Internal Assessment: We had to look up and find our own primary sources and make a research paper arguing our thesis using evidence. The topic could be chosen by the student and so students were able to choose something they were interested in.
    • External Assessment: This class had three papers (one paper happens during one exam period, so this class had three days of testing), all of which were essay based. There are a variety of questions asked in each paper, so students can choose what topics they know the most about. Here is a link to a released exam.
  • IB Biology
    • Internal Assessment: The class was encouraged to make their own lab experiment and test them. For one, my class was given the parameters that we had to test the effect of something on enzymes. For the other, we were given equipment to measure heart rate and had to come up with a variable that would effect heart rate.
    • External Assessment: This class is one of the few that had multiple choice as part of the exam. There were three papers for this exam, one of which was multiple choice while the other two were essay or short answers. There were sections where multiple prompts were given, but a student got to chose which ones they wanted to write about. The IBO doesn’t have a released exam for biology on their website, so here is the link to a chemistry exam.
  • IB Math Studies
    • Internal Assessment: This class required us to use statistics knowledge to analyze if there was a correlation between different quantitative data. Students could choose to work with existing data or to collect their own data from their peers, in addition to having control over what they researched.
    • External Assessment: This exam was unlike any math exam I had ever taken. The questions were all in the form of open ended questions asking us to solve math problems. You could earn points by doing the correct steps to solve a problem, and only loose a point or two if you made a simple mistake that made it so your answer was wrong. Here is a link to an IB math exam.
  • IB English
    • Internal Assessment: This class had the most extensive set of Internal Assessments. There were two ‘written tasks’ each year, however you had to only choose two out of the four to be graded. These tasks had multiple prompts and the student could choose one and also have a lot of creative input when it comes to the format of the writing. We also had to do an oral assessment. We would go into a room, be given a passage from one of three books we read, and then go and talk about the passage for 10 minutes to our teacher.
    • External Assessment: This class had two papers that were both essay based. One of them we would get a choice between two sets of a text and an image to compare and contrast. The other was a series of questions and we had to choose one of the prompts to answer using two of the books we had read. Here is a link to an IB English exam.
  • IB French
    • Internal Assessment: This class had two Internal Assessments. One was a written task where we had to write a text based on a certain section of the class. The student would have to find 2-3 articles in the language they were studying, read them, and then write a paper based on them. The paper had to use certain conventions, however students could decide the structure (examples include blog post, email, and brochure). The second Internal Assessment was an oral task where we would be given a picture and would have some time to analyze it  and then we had to speak in the foreign language about the picture for five minutes. We needed to make sure to relate the picture to the course and to talk about related social issues.
    • External Assessment: There were two papers for this class. One was more based on short answers and analyzing short passages. We would be given a series of passages in French and asked questions about them. The second paper was prompt based and would require a longer essay on the subject. The student had options to chose from so they had control over what they wrote about. Here is a link to an IB French exam.

The strength of IB assessments, in my opinion, was their variety and the students control. We had so much choice to show what we learned in the way that would be most effective. We could tailor the assessments so we could display our knowledge. These tests were designed to show the graders what we knew. The variety of evaluators, from our own teachers to people from around the world, gave us a variety of feedback. The variety of kinds of assessment meant that a student who may struggle in one form could make up for that in another. The IB program isn’t flawless, but its way of assessing students is significantly better than what we have right now.

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