Major international and national school exams suspended

Major international examinations normally taken by the most internationally mobile students such as the International Baccalaureate (IB) and international A levels have been suspended due to the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition, a number of countries are suspending their national school-leaving exams normally required for university entry, with contingency measures being put in place for grading students applying for university this year.

The suspensions come as a result of major school closures in many countries which has made it difficult for students to prepare properly for exams.

The suspension of IB exams taken at international schools around the world was announced on 22 March. Exams were due to take place in May and June, and have been suspended for the first time in the history of the IB.

Cambridge International, the British body that runs the international GCSE exams at age 16, and A level exams required for university entrance also announced on 24 March “the difficult decision not to run our international examinations in the May-June 2020 series in any country”.

Cambridge International said universities in the United Kingdom, United States, Canada and Australia, which are the key destination countries for those taking the exams, informed the body they were “dealing with the situation on a case by case basis” and recommended that schools contact universities “for each applicant”.

This would involve “providing details of the student’s circumstances. This could include the length of time a school has been closed, limited access to specialist facilities, changes to staffing and information about whether immediate family have been affected”.

Around 10,000 schools in 160 countries use the Cambridge exams, while as many as 200,000 take the IB.

Pearson, another company administering international GCSE and A level exams, also announced on 24 March that it would not hold “any General Qualification exams in May and June globally.”

‘Not a major surprise’

The UK government moved on 18 March to cancel all GCSE and A level exams within Britain because of the coronavirus pandemic, but the international exams run by Cambridge International are separately administered and are used at many schools in Malaysia and Singapore and Hong Kong as well as British International Schools, many of them in China but also in Hong Kong, Thailand, South Korea and the United Arab Emirates. The majority of students taking these exams apply to universities in English-speaking countries.

Anne Keeling, communications director at ISC research, which provides data on the international schools market, told University World News that the cancellations had not come as a major surprise. “It was increasingly impossible for certain students in certain countries to be able to take exams, and to provide an equal footing for all students everywhere,” she said.

IB and international A level examinations are taken at around the same time around the world, but schools have shut on different dates. While some are planning to reopen after closures, others closed much later.

Even when schools reopen, “there are massive logistical problems getting the teachers back,” Keeling said.

For example, some provinces in China appear to be preparing to reopen schools, which could be in time for such exams.

But “everyone who flies into China now has to go through a medical testing centre and this can take up to three days as everyone has to be tested. And then they have to go into quarantine for 14 days. So, the schools are trying to get everyone back now so that they have gone through quarantine ready for when the schools reopen,” Keeling said.

Stephanie Quayle, East Asia consultant for ISC research, based in Shanghai, said schools in China’s Jiangsu province on China’s Eastern seaboard may be able to reopen on 30 March, according to official announcements by the provincial authorities. Many of the students in Jiangsu province and Shanghai – which has not indicated when schools that have been shut since January will reopen – apply to Sino-international joint venture universities which are clustered in the region. They include NYU Shanghai and Duke Kunshan University.

Quayle said in a briefing note this week that “it is becoming increasingly difficult to travel back to China, [so] other international schools may find it much harder to reopen than local schools”.

However, Keeling said the suspension of exams would not disadvantage the current university-applying cohort. “It will cause its own set of initial problems, but the universities are – and the world is – understanding.”

IB acknowledges disappointment

“Of course, there is also some disappointment and frustration and that’s a part of what made this decision so difficult,” said IB Director General Siva Kumari in an interview published on the IB community blog. “Due to the nature of the IB programme, we could not make the decision one country at a time. We had to make the right decision for our entire global community of teachers, examiners and students.

“In late December-early January, we were monitoring and reacting to what was happening in our schools in China, Japan and South Korea. Those schools provided insights on the impact of shutdowns to come,” she said.

“We felt reassured that universities already have a deep understanding of our rigorous programmes and know how well we prepare our students to continue their education at those institutions.

“It’s important to remember that universities are also adjusting to this new reality and are trying to approach their usual decisions with a new degree of flexibility.”

Kumari added that an online exam option was carefully considered but was decided against, in part due to access and equity reasons.

“Not every student has access to online tools to sit for exams, and we are not currently able to put the infrastructure into place to remove that barrier,” Kumari said. “Finally, our schools are under so much pressure right now to keep delivering their standard curriculum in the hardest of circumstances. Adding another new, highly consequential and stressful demand on administrators and educators at this time seemed to be a bridge too far.”

The IB organisation said it would award diploma certificates “based on the student’s submitted coursework and the established assessment expertise, rigour and quality control already built into the programme”.

Need for certainty

“We have been consulting closely with our global community of schools, who need as much certainty as possible at an uncertain time,” Cambridge International said in its statement, adding: “Our priority is to protect the safety and well-being of our students and teachers, ensure fairness for all our students and support them in continuing with their education.”

The body said it recognised pupils had worked hard for their exams and it would work with schools to assess their achievements using “the best available evidence”.

Students will receive a grade and a certificate from Cambridge International, given the knowledge and skills they acquired in their study, Cambridge International said. It said it would provide guidance to schools on how students would receive those grades, which it insisted would not disadvantage them because of the cancellations.

“We are talking to universities worldwide and they are factoring these unprecedented circumstances into admissions decisions so that students can continue with their education journeys as soon as possible,” it said.

Sharon Hague, Pearson’s senior vice president of schools, said: “We remain committed to ensuring that all students internationally receive a result and a grade, and we will award grades to international students using the same principles as for the UK GCSE and A level qualifications” – these are to be based on classroom assessments and mock examinations.

The US College Board, which administers the US SAT university placement examinations, announced on 16 March that the May exams would be cancelled, including those rescheduled to May after the March SATs were also cancelled, while the status of the June SATs are being considered.

“We will provide additional SAT testing opportunities as soon as feasible in place of cancelled administrations,” the College Board said.

Disruptions in national examinations are continuing, with postponements and cancellations. Indonesia’s government also cancelled national exams due to begin from the end of March.

Hong Kong schools which had been due to reopen are to remain suspended until further notice, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam said on 21 March. Hong Kong’s Diploma of Secondary Education exams, due to begin 26 March, have now been postponed by a month until 24 April, and Chinese and English-language oral examinations have been cancelled, the Hong Kong government said. Hong Kong’s schools have been closed since January.

Some 50,000 Hong Kong students sit the exams, and with major disruptions at Hong Kong’s universities due to protests in the city last year, as well as the coronavirus closures, many are expected to apply to overseas universities.

University World News correspondent in Hong Kong Mimi Leung contributed to this article.