Seeking IB’s ties to student achievement

A report on the International Baccalaureate program raises questions for Minneapolis Public Schools

Washburn High School senior Savannah Maynard is in the school's International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme. Credit: Dylan Thomas

No other district in the state has invested in International Baccalaureate like Minneapolis Public Schools, but a recent review of the program shows it isn’t getting results on many of the usual measures of student achievement.

District leaders say those results will come as the district IB program transitions out of expansion mode and matures. They also question whether the snapshots of achievement standardized tests provide are the best measure of an educational program that aims to create inquiring, knowledgeable and globally minded students.

Still, the findings are striking because IB’s “proven effectiveness … to raise student achievement for diverse student populations” was cited by the School Board as part of the rationale for adding IB offerings in 2009 and 2013. The district has framed IB as way to meet demand from Minneapolis families for rigorous programming, improve instruction and compete with suburban districts.

Since 2007, the district has constructed K–12 IB pathways in each of its three bus transportation zones. Today, more than one-quarter of district students attend a school authorized by IB’s international governing body in Geneva or that is in the process of earning authorization.

Minneapolis students who participate in IB are more likely to enroll in college. But they don’t necessarily get better grades than their peers, they aren’t improving faster and on the standard measures of academic achievement — including state tests and the ACT exam typically taken by high school juniors — they perform no better or worse than students who don’t take IB courses.

“We’re not necessarily seeing they are outperforming, academically, other students,” said Melanie Crawford, the district’s director of talent development and advanced learner education, who delivered her report on IB to the School Board in April.

Growth years

For most of two decades, the district offered International Baccalaureate’s Diploma Programme for high school juniors and seniors at just two schools: Southwest, where IB launched in 1985, and Henry, authorized two years later in 1987. Southwest is often ranked among the state’s best high schools.

In 2005, Elizabeth Hall and Whittier elementary schools began offering the IB Primary Years Programme for students aged 3–12, and both were authorized IB schools by 2007. Unlike the Diploma Programme — which, like Advanced Placement, is a set of challenging courses students opt into — both the Primary Years Programme and the Middle Years Programme for students ages 11–16 are described as overarching “curriculum frameworks” that guide teaching and learning in all subject areas.

“It is not an elite program for a certain group of kids,” said Diane Tiffany, IB coordinator for Whittier. “It’s for every student who steps through that door.”

On a recent Wednesday morning, a classroom of Whittier first-grade students took turns delivering multi-media reports on animals and their habitats. Each presentation ended with the students taking questions from their classmates.

Whittier Principal Anne DePerry said “there definitely is a different level of rigor” at an IB–PYP school.

“We really are pushing inquiry, getting kids to be high-level thinkers, to not necessarily look to the teacher for the answers all the time, but to ask … thought provoking questions,” DePerry said.

This year, about 9,400 students at 12 schools — or roughly 27 percent of the district’s student population — were enrolled in an IB program. At the upper levels of the program, 62 percent of all juniors and seniors at IB-authorized Minneapolis high schools took at least one IB course.

Crawford said the significant expansion of IB in the past five years was part “of an overall strategy to increase access and opportunities for kids to take more advanced coursework.” By adding both PYP and MYP programs, the district aims to grow capable and confident students prepared for the academic challenges of the Diploma Programme.

White and Asian students disproportionately opt-in to high school IB courses, and both groups are more likely to achieve a score on an IB exam that will earn them college credit. Crawford said better preparation for all students might help close that gap.

Measuring success

With Minneapolis students now able to start in IB in kindergarten and continue in the program through their senior year, Crawford and others are attempting to identify what early differences contribute to success in high school.

She said the age of the program and the amount of professional development teachers get both seem to be important, and the district is increasing funding for school IB coordinators next year to better support teachers. It’s still not funded as a fulltime job, but principals like DePerry use discretionary funds to “buy-up” the position to that level.

Research, Evaluation and Assessment Director Eric Moore told the School Board in April he was looking for new ways to measure the benefits of IB. Moore expected students in writing-intensive IB courses probably did better on ACT essays, but it may be trickier to measure qualities like student engagement, caring and cultural competence.

“We don’t measure those things, typically, because we’ve had the traditional measures of test scores, but IB is really about the holistic learner,” he said. “So, how do we as a system come up with a way to measure that in an accurate way that is valid and reliable, that people can buy into?”

“Learning how to understand”

Savannah Maynard is an 18-year-old Washburn senior and the only one in her class this year attempting to complete the entire IB Diploma Programme, a two-year undertaking she said was “not for the faint-hearted.”

A full load of IB courses means more homework, and in addition to that Maynard wrote a 4,000-word essay on a topic of her choice — the 1936 Berlin Olympics — and completed 150 hours of community service work. The rigors of IB were readily apparent to her.

“You’re actually learning how to understand the subject,” Maynard said. “It’s not just learning to spit it back out for an essay.”

Maynard submitted the essay in February and hadn’t yet learned if she’d earned the diploma as of early May. Still, she said she felt better prepared to start at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter next year, where she plans to go pre-med.

“I’ve had a lot of underclassmen ask me what (IB) is like and whether they should do it, and I recommend it to all of them,” she said.