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'I think it’s ridiculous': Some counties are canceling IB exams while others aren't

The biggest school district in the Tampa Bay area, Hillsborough County Public Schools, canceled its IB exams. But surrounding districts say their exams will go on.

TAMPA, Fla. — This story is the latest installment in our YouTube series, "What's Brewing,” investigative reporter Jenna Bourne's series of homemade deep dives into important issues during the coronavirus pandemic. Click here to check out the series and subscribe to our YouTube channel: The Deeper Dive.

Many fun rites of passage high school seniors grow up looking forward to have been canceled because of the pandemic.

“This is my new reality. I didn’t get to have pep rallies. I didn’t get to have a senior prom. I don’t have grad bash,” said Delaney Mobley, a senior in Strawberry Crest High School’s International Baccalaureate program, known as IB.

But what about canceling IB exams? That depends on what zip code you live in.

It’s an international issue affecting high school seniors around Tampa Bay.

Our biggest school district, Hillsborough County Public Schools, canceled its IB exams while other districts right next door say their exams aren’t going anywhere.

Strawberry Crest High School senior Gabriella Sleem is not someone to shy away from a challenge.

That’s why she wanted to do the IB program.

“I wanted to be challenged. I wanted to be surrounded by people who also wanted to be challenged and enjoyed the learning process,” said Sleem.

International Baccalaureate is a worldwide accelerated learning program with tough classes and high standards.

Sleem knew senior year would be tough. IB students spend years preparing to take weeks of exams in May of senior year, which they have to pass to get an IB diploma.

Credit: Gabriella Sleem
Pictures of Gabriella Sleem.

“This is a big thing. This could basically, like, decide whether or not the last four years have been a waste or if I’m going to leave with the IB diploma,” Sleem said.

Sleem knew all that when she chose to pursue that IB diploma, but this past year brought challenges she never expected.

The pandemic meant spending her senior year at home, learning virtually.

“I was very nervous because both of my parents work in health care. So, I have been – this entire time, the pandemic has basically consumed our lives,” Sleem said. “Not only am I stressed out because of the things that would come naturally for IB senior year because of these exams and how greatly they’re emphasized during the entirety of the program, but now we’re facing all of these additional obstacles and figuring out how it’s going to be safe for all these kids to come together to take these exams without compromising the test security and the integrity of the program as well.”

In 2020, the IB Organization canceled exams around the world because of the pandemic.

But this year, IB is offering what they call a “dual-route.”

Schools that can safely administer the exams are supposed to do it.

Schools that can’t give the exams safely can cancel the tests and do what’s called the “calculation route,” where students earn their IB Diplomas based on their performance on coursework and internal exams.

In late February, Sleem and her classmate Delaney Mobley were in the dark about IB exams, so they asked 10 Investigates to look into whether IB exams were on or off in Hillsborough County.

“Doing the exams in person when I have been online my entire senior year would defeat the purpose. I’ve been online my whole senior year. I don’t go into school. I don’t see my friends. I don’t see my teachers. Everything’s online and I just hear their voices. So, to go in person, to risk my safety, my dad’s safety, my grandmother’s safety is just something that was so unnecessary to me,” Mobley said.

Credit: Delaney Mobley
A photo of Delaney Mobley.

When 10 Investigates first reached out to Hillsborough County Public Schools, its spokesperson told us exams were going to happen in-person for the district’s five high schools with IB programs.

About two weeks later, the district reversed course.

“We appealed to the IB, International Baccalaureate, and just told them, you know what, we want to go a different route. We want to be able to move to a calculation route, just being able to calculate their courses, finalize it through all of their coursework and internal examinations and not use their examination. And they approved it. And we’re grateful for it. It’s just another layer to remove a stressor for our students,” Hillsborough County Public Schools Superintendent Addison Davis told 10 Tampa Bay.

Sleem said the change was a relief.

“I, honestly, I was crying with joy. I was so excited because I no longer had to worry about what it would be like if someone in my class got COVID, or if I got COVID, or someone took it home and brought it to their families. There was a lot riding on whether or not we would all be safe and healthy during that time,” she said.

But Sleem would have to take those IB exams if she lived just one county over.

“Personally, I think it’s ridiculous,” she said.

10 Investigates found that whether or not IB exams get canceled varies from one county to the next.

Students at thousands of schools in 158 countries are dealing with this same thing.

Florida is home to 84 high school IB programs.

Eighteen of them are at public high schools around Tampa Bay.

10 Investigates reached out to all nine Tampa Bay area school districts with IB programs and, so far, Hillsborough County Public Schools is the only district to cancel IB exams.

Sarasota County Schools’ spokesperson said the district hasn’t finalized its plans yet.

Credit: 10 Tampa Bay

Hillsborough isn’t the only district in Florida to cancel IB exams.

Orange County Public Schools are doing the “calculation route,” too.

Like Hillsborough, Orange County is home to five public high schools with IB programs.

“It shows the lack of a fair system of getting a diploma, basically, is what it’s showing. I am going to get my diploma a different means than someone in Citrus County is going to get their diploma,” Mobley said.

Evette Striblen is an IB Coordinator and Assistant Principal at Palm Harbor University High School, a Pinellas County school where IB exams are still happening.

We asked what she tells IB students who question why they have to take in-person IB exams during a pandemic.

“Yeah, that’s a hard question to answer. And as a parent myself with a high school student who’s going to be taking AP exams as well, I can understand their concern. I can understand the frustration. But we are capable of providing exams,” Striblen said.

Credit: Pinellas County Schools
A photo of a Palm Harbor University High School IB class.

To help keep students safe, Pinellas will stagger IB exam times to reduce the number of students in a room at the same time, keep students at least 5-feet apart, require masks, assign seats and sanitize the testing facility in between every exam session.

In some instances, clear plexiglass dividers will separate students.

When possible, online students will be seated separately from students who’ve been doing in-person learning.

“This is their opportunity to really shine and show what they’ve learned, to show the knowledge that they’ve gained,” Striblen said. “Some students are really wanting that opportunity.”

And while some students want to take these exams that they’ve worked so hard to prepare for, Sleem said she believes all IB students should be on an even playing field.

“It doesn’t make sense for all of us to be put on these totally different tracks when we’re all held to the same standard and studied this same exact curriculum during these four years,” Sleem said. “If we pride ourselves on being an international program, we should have a set plan for things that happen like this, that applies to everyone rather than just on a case-by-case basis.”

Director of International Baccalaureate World Schools Adrian Kearney declined our requests for a Zoom interview.

Through an IB Organization spokesperson, Kearney sent an emailed statement that said, in part, “The IB is working with local officials regarding local context, restrictions, and the impact of COVID-19 on students. For more details on the May 2021 session, students and teachers are encouraged to talk to their school’s IB coordinator... The IB is working with schools in Tampa Bay and all around the globe to determine the best path forward given the local context.”

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