Lost Sleep over Lost Exams: Changes to the May 2021 IB Exams


It’s August 11, and the IB side of the internet is going crazy. Instagram, WhatsApp, and Reddit push out so many notifications that it’s hard to keep track of what’s happening. There’s a document going around with exam changes, but the seniors aren’t sure if they’re official. Group chats are abuzz with messages asking what it means for the class of 2021. Wednesday morning on the Upper Field, the class of 2021 gathered for a welcome back to school. The IB Coordinator spoke briefly to confirm that the changes were official, however it was still largely unclear what these changes meant. 

The document contained a list of every IB subject, based on group, with the changes, if any, were made to the course. While the first page of the document showed an overview of the changes, the following pages detailed which components were removed or amended. In this document, no reasons were given as to why changes were made.

So what does this mean in practicality for students? And for teachers? Generally, the answer is it depends on the class. For example, for IB Theater students, the removal of the Collaborative Project for both standard and higher level, a third of the typical course load and one of the most practical “theater-making” component, taking up roughly two months of class time, means that the entirety of the course is focused on just two assessment aspects at standard level, and three at higher level. For IB Biology students, the removal of Paper 3 means that the optional module aspect of assessment is no longer a requirement for the curriculum. The examples for each course could continue, and are outlined in this document, but the typical pattern is a reduction in course content, and thus an increased focus on internal assessments and on the remaining materials for the written May exams. 

For students then, not much has changed as far as day to day classes. For teachers, however, massive changes have been made to lesson plans and schedules for the year. Ms. Wade, the Head of the English Department, provided some insight into how this has affected Language A.

“The IB cancelled Paper 2. This means they cancelled the paper where students are

assessed on their knowledge and understanding of taught literary texts,” she said. “Dropping Paper 2 rather than Paper 1 is going to be more challenging for our students who would probably prefer to write about what they have been taught and where they feel secure in their knowledge, but I can see the reasoning behind the decision.”

Similar changes were made to the science department. “For this, the IB has canceled Paper 3 for Biology, Chemistry, and Physics,” said Mr. Holmyard, the Head of the Department of Sciences. “This [paper] tested the options unit and the prescribed practicals. This saves about 15 hours of teaching for SL classes and 25 for HL.” 

The observations made by Mr. Holmyard and Ms. Wade seem to be very common across many of the subjects. Students seem to share similar perspectives. “I was very happy with the changes to a majority of my classes, but I was very upset nothing had happened to math,” said one anonymous Grade 12 student. “Plus, since we have learned something about the weightings, it’s been all the more stressful.”

The FIS IB Coordinator, Ms. van der Meer, also shared some of her insights into the changes made to the curriculum. “I think they have communicated with us, like it was just before school that the reductions had happened, but what they didn’t do is share the ‘why’. Of course the ‘why’ was the students weren’t in class, but it was for the teachers as the individual subject teachers ‘why’ individual components were removed. What still isn’t clear is how they are being weighted.”

A few weeks after these interviews were conducted, the IBO released new documents containing explanations for the changes made to the curriculum, providing the “why” that teachers were interested to know. Both students and teachers received a document containing the new weightings for the exams. For most subjects, the IA received a heavier weighting, falling somewhere between 25-35%. For some subjects, including Computer Science and Global Politics, after one paper had been removed the remaining paper changed from 40 or 45% to 60 or even 70% of the overall grade for the course. 

“One one side, it’s nice because we have fewer tests, but there’s a lot more pressure on us. Two years of work could all be based on one test” said one Grade 12 student. While it is clear that the IB is still trying to figure out how to respond to these changes, we encourage students to have a positive outlook, and to communicate well with their teachers to best prepare for a unique exam season.