Since the advent of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the International Baccalaureate organization (IB) has been under pressure to communicate its exam policy regarding affected students. 

DP exams begin Thursday, April 28th, and many seniors from IB schools in Ukraine and Russia are learning across several time zones, online. There hasn’t been any public announcements on cancellations, but AISB’s DP Coordinator Aliza Robinson confirms that based on email communication from other school coordinators, students have the choice to opt in or out of exams. 

“I believe the IB is being fair in balancing and supporting students who can take exams and students who can’t,” says Robinson. But the question is: what qualifies as support? While on paper the IB has presented options, their limited scaffolding and transparency may make for less extensive “support” than could be assumed. 

A lack of specificity 

In an “open letter” published on March 11th, the Director General of the IB, Olli-Pekka Heinonen, condemned acts of war and violence and stated that the IB World Schools staff were “working closely with schools, students and educators in Ukraine and neighboring nations…providing support for [their] schools, educators and students while respecting the law and ensuring the safety of those in [their] community.” 

While there was no mention of exams, or the IB’s exam policy during war, Heinonen did link to the IB Global Crisis Response Framework, which is said to provide structure which “supports the use of the IB mission to engage students and schools learning through crisis and learning about crisis.” 

In the framework, the IB does not mention support mechanisms, exam policies, or the toll war can take on different learners.

While having unspecific, general stipulations can allow for increased flexibility in times of crisis, this should be underpinned by clear, situation-specific policies during those times. The absence of this information suggests that it’s up to students to advocate for themselves— which seems to be the case.

According to seniors at Kyiv International School (KIS), they were given four options of what their exam process could look like: 

  • Option 1: Defer, at no extra cost, to a future examination session, either November 2022 or May 2023.
  • Option 2: Exam Route. Where possible, students have the option to take the IB exams at an alternative venue. If this option is selected, the DP Coordinator will help find locations for students to sit the exams.
  • Option 3: Non-Exam Route. For this option, students’ grades will be awarded based on the following three areas: IAs and coursework mark, predicted grade and the school’s historical data.
  • Option 4: Withdraw. Students may withdraw from the May 2022 session with a full refund from the IB.

It was difficult trying to find information on what exams look like for seniors in Russia. We reached out to students from AAS Moscow and they declined to comment—replying that they were instructed not to disclose anything as the school felt the circumstances were changing too rapidly to release potentially false information that could be traced back to them. This further suggests that, even within a framework of individualized policy, communication could be more clear and consistent.

The emotional toll of individual exemptions

There are obvious potential safety hazards of requiring students to take exams during a war with rapidly changing circumstances, an economy decimated by sanctions, and an authoritarian government that has already arrested thousands for dissenting opinions. Thus, the IB’s non-exam route is an option in Ukraine and much of Russia. 

Beyond immediate threats, the provision of the non-exam route is also motivated by the fact that war can also be socially and emotionally challenging, especially for young people. Being forced to deal with things like leaving your home behind or not being able to reach relatives, on top of the stress of studying for exams in six subjects, is unreasonable.

“Ukrainian IB students in Ukraine missed a whole month of school when Russia invaded our country,” says a KIS student who wishes to remain anonymous. “Russians were bombing military bases right next to our houses.”

The student explains that while they have the ability to study, unfortunately almost all their fellow Ukrainian students are too anxious to do so.  

From what Robinson and other coordinators have seen, the IB is attempting to accommodate people who do want to take the exams, allowing them to travel to other IB schools in different regions or countries to take them. Our school, being largely unaffected by the war, is one such school that can administer the exams, although Robinson has confirmed that no one has yet signed up to do so.

“Students have to take almost all of the initiative,” says Sommer Blohm, AISB’s DP and college counselor. “The main thing I’d like to see is the IB reaching out to students interested and coordinating… and facilitating these arrangements.”

Blohm explains that, from what she’s seen, it’s not only the logistics and traveling that is exhausting; but students are required to take exams in unfamiliar environments with unfamiliar people, making it even more difficult to arrange the taking of exams and for students to perform their best when they do. 

The decision to take exams

In the absence of potential online alternatives, students whose schools cannot oversee the taking of exams are faced with a difficult decision: rely on their predicted scores or find a testing site at another IB school.

Robinson says that “there will always be students who prefer to take and not take exams” and that “from what I’ve seen, it’s a pretty even split.” 

Elaborating, she explains that the differences in exam preferences not only stem from grades, but also from personal disposition towards a timed, compressed environment compared to an extended, persistence-based situation where higher quality work is expected.

Blohm adds that, after the last two pandemic years, the subset of students who need to take exams in order to get their diploma is smaller than ever before. In fact, the global average IB score has been going up from about 30/45 in 2019 and 2020 to 33/45 in 2021. 

“The IB has been more flexible with their input from teachers on students’ grades and lowered their grade boundaries slightly,” Blohm explains, suggesting that the IB’s short-term prioritization against this subset is reasonable. 

While IB scores did go up during the pandemic, many current DP students aren’t confident that teachers will have the same leniency and are relying on the exams to boost their grades. They’re also not confident that the work they’ve done over the pandemic and now during war, will be enough. 

For many of the non-Ukrainian students at KIS who were able to leave the country and get to safer areas, this remains true—displaced around the world, many are stressed about which option will get them the score they need to get into university.

Providing more support in the future

The IB currently flies in printed copies of exams as a way to prevent academic dishonesty. Schools are not able to print them out themselves, and tests must be administered at moderated testing sites, at certified IB schools.

This is why seniors were granted blanket exam exemptions during the pandemic, when much of the world was online: there was (and is) no online option for testing. Now, with shuttered schools and potentially unsafe airspace, students who do want to take exams have no choice but to travel to other IB schools.

While switching to online testing seems like a viable path forward, Robinson says that the implementation of any new system would take years to set up and perfect. And considering that the majority of students from Ukraine and Russia don’t have to take exams, she wonders what else the IB could do.

So for now, the students who do feel obliged to take the exams carry this added weight on their shoulders.

The nature of war means that circumstances are likely to change rapidly. With the IB being an organization that oversees thousands of students in countries all around the world, they have the responsibility of providing clear policies and transparent communication. They also have the responsibility of supporting students to the best of their ability—which means adapting their testing methods during times of crisis where there are concerns other than malpractice.

As the student from KIS adds, it’s not just the complicated testing options and lack of communication, but they were “personally offended by the silence of the organization regarding the genocide in Ukraine.” They said that, in their mind, keeping silent about the war only adds to anxiety.