Why is IB HL Maths so hard? 

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This is a question that nearly all students who take the subject will ask themselves at some point during the course – and they’d be right to do so because it’s a question that most teachers ask as well.  The table below shows the students entered for the May 2015 IB exams:

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Only 14% of IB students take IB HL,  an incredibly low take up.  Even more remarkably half of this group will only get a level 2-4.   Looking at the top end, to get a level 6 or 7 at HL you probably need to have a maths ability in the top 3.5% of all global IB students.  Out of a year group of 60 you would expect on average only 2 students to be good enough to get a 5 and 2 more to get a 6 or 7.  Given than universities asking for HL maths will invariably be asking for level 5+, this means that the IB have designed a course which is only really useful for 4 students in every 60.

It’s not as if the IB aren’t aware that they’ve created a course that hardly any students get benefit from.  The most recent release acknowledges that “students struggle to reach their full potential” in the subject – with a plan to reduce the marks on the paper to give students more time.  But this is failing to address the overall cause of the problem, i.e that examiners persist in producing bad exams which don’t take into account the needs of the students taking them.

Grade Boundaries

You can see this failure easily enough by looking at past paper grade boundaries.  Given that only half of HL students will come out with more than a level 4, the grade boundary for a level 4 is normally pitifully low – around 40% on paper 1.  There’s absolutely no justification for this when 70% is low enough to produce a level 7.  What is the final 30% of the paper – too difficult even for level 7 students – hoping to achieve?   This is evidence of a bad exam and nothing more.  And yet examiners seem to be incapable of doing anything to change this.  An exam designed expecting level 4 students to be getting 50% should be an absolute minimum requirement.  Hard questions and low grade boundaries simply result in demotivated and disillusioned students who feel like their 2 years slogging through HL has been wasted.  Is this the legacy that IB want to achieve?  That students who start the course with enthusiasm and love for the subject get gradually crushed and demoralised?  It seems a pretty poor outcome.

The option paper for Calculus also shows the same lamentable failings.  The November 2015 Calculus paper required only 38% to get a level 4 and 56% for a level 6.  Given that so few students achieve level 6 or 7 this means the paper was so badly designed that probably close to 75% of the students taking it got less than 50%.  How can this be anything other than a failure of the examiners to actually produce a fair test?  This bunching up of all grades meant that a slip on one question could cost a student 2 grades.  17 marks out of 60 was a level 2 – but 23 marks a level 4.  Equally a student getting 28 marks or 34 marks would have got level 4 or 6 respectively.  This is a terrible test!  Small mistakes are massively penalised and all students leave the exam room feeling like they have failed.

Examiner Mindset

The examiner mindset especially in evidence in the Calculus option unit is to purposely avoid all topics that they think the students will be able to do, and instead to find parts of the syllabus that they expect to catch students out on.  On P1 and P2 where examiners have 240 marks to play with, these exams are a good reflection of the syllabus content.  For P3 this isn’t the case – large chunks of the syllabus are ignored completely in exams, which makes it all the more unfair when examiners decide to deliberately look for problem areas, rather than concentrating on making a test which reflects the overall content of the course.  There also seems to be the desire to make the Calculus option a university undergraduate level maths paper – as though there is a pride to be taken in making it as difficult and rigorous as possible.  But HL maths is not an undergraduate  course – and the students taking it are not university mathematicians.  Designing a paper which is aimed only at the needs of level 6 and 7 students is incredibly unfair to the rest of the cohort – and yet this appears to be what happens.

IB HL not fit for purpose?

The IB HL examiners have effectively signed the death warrant for IB HL.  From 2020 IB HL will be killed off in its current form – as a direct result of the low numbers and persistent negative feedback from both students and teachers.  It is planned to merge Studies, SL and HL into just 2 subjects – SL and HL – which will of course require a substantial dumbing down of the HL syllabus to ensure that the 2 new courses are accessible to all IB students.  And this in itself is a huge shame – there is a definite need for 3 levels of maths at IB, catering for very different student needs.  However despite the obvious reform being to stop making the HL papers so unnecessarily hard, the entire IB maths offering is going to be hugely dumbed down instead.  What a terrible legacy.