Rewarding Requirements: A Closer Look at the IB

To earn an official IB diploma that is recognized worldwide, students must follow a two-year IB Diploma Programme during their junior and senior years that includes prescribed coursework, "internal" and culminating assessments, and designated special projects:


IB requires coursework in six areas:

  • Language, or literature and writing in the student's home language;
  • Second Language;
  • Individuals and Societies, including courses such as history, economics, geography, philosophy, and social anthropology;
  • Experimental Sciences, including biology, physics, environmental systems, and design technology;
  • Mathematics;
  • Arts and Electives, including visual arts, music, and theater arts.

Students must take at least one course in each of the six areas (however, the arts and electives course can be replaced by an additional course from one of the first five areas). At least three, but no more than four, courses must be at the Higher Level (HL), which requires a minimum of 240 teaching hours. The rest are taken at the Standard Level (SL), which entails roughly 150 teaching hours.

In addition to the subject-area coursework, students in the IB Diploma Programme also take Theory of Knowledge, an interdisciplinary course in which the students explore issues such as subjective bias and evaluate the evidence used to support arguments.


Each of the courses includes two forms of assessment required by IB. The "Internal Assessment" is completed as part of the coursework and represents about 25 percent (depending on the course) of a student's total score for the course. The culminating examination is administered at the same time throughout the world (in May in the Northern Hemisphere and in November in the Southern Hemisphere) and accounts for the remaining 75 percent of the official IB course grade. The Internal Assessment is by the teacher, but a sample of the students' work (and teacher's grades) is reviewed by IB to ensure that the world standards are being upheld. The culminating exam is scored externally by some 3,400 educators who are specially trained for the task.

Students have two options if they don't perform well on exam day. For one, they can retake the exam during the following school year. That is, 11th-graders can try again in May of their senior year and 12th-graders can try again in November or the following May. In either case, students are still eligible to earn an IB diploma. Students' other option is to simply forgo the IB diploma and accept a regular diploma from their school—IB allows high schools to set their own policies as to how IB grades are tied to students' GPAs and eligibility for earning a regular diploma. During the school year, teachers assign a variety of papers and tests that both prepare students for the IB assessments and provide a basis for a regular course grade.

Special Projects

Students in the IB Diploma Programme also write a 4,000-word Extended Essay on a topic of their choice. Like the exams, the essay is graded by IB's trained examiners. Lastly, students must complete and document 150 hours of "Creativity, Action, Service," which includes participation in cultural events, extracurricular activities, athletics, and community service outside of school hours.

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As students complete each of these requirements, they are not being assessed by IB in terms of passing or failing. Instead, they are earning points toward the IB diploma. For each of the six courses, IB gives a final grade on a scale of 1 (very poor) to 7 (excellent) points. Students can earn another three points based on their combined performance in the Theory of Knowledge course and Extended Essay. Points are simply added, not averaged, resulting in the maximum possible "grade" of 45 points.

While IB students do not pass or fail classes, they can fail to earn the IB diploma. In 2001, the diploma was awarded to students who earned at least 24 points, provided the students met several criteria such as, "there is no grade one in any Higher Level subject." In general, these criteria are designed to ensure that all of the requirements have been met and that poor performance in one or two subjects is balanced with high achievement in other subjects.

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