Layne Griffith is on a mission.
The St. Petersburg High School senior and her classmates in the rigorous International Baccalaureate program face several hours of exams designed to determine whether they qualify for their special diploma and all the perks that come with it.
Because of the pandemic, Griffith argues, they’ve missed enough instruction to make them not fully prepared for the tests. The fact that they’re offered in-person only creates another quandary for several of the teens who have attended classes remotely for the past year, and don’t feel comfortable returning to campus.
“I’m going to keep pushing on ‘Why are you doing this when you can go the cancellation route?’” Griffith said.
Last spring, the International Baccalaureate Organization called off its senior exams, which students spend two years preparing for, as the coronavirus spread. To earn their IB diplomas, seniors were evaluated on other course assignments that reflected their quality of work over time.
This year, the Switzerland-based organization chose to return to testing. But it left the door open for schools and districts to request an alternate route for grading similar to 2020 for those that viewed the pandemic as an impediment to the exams.
“The IB is working with schools in Tampa Bay and all around the globe to determine the best path forward, given the local context,” the organization told the Tampa Bay Times in an official statement.
Several Pinellas County IB students — the program also is offered at Largo and Palm Harbor University high schools — sent emails to district officials asking for consideration of their situation.
“It’s worse than it was when they canceled it last year,” senior Charlie Miller said of the pandemic.
They received a response from advanced studies director Judith Vigue saying the matter was out of the district’s hands.
“Our district was informed by the IBO Regional World School Manager that all schools in Pinellas County have been designated to administer the IB exams for the May 2021 session,” Vigue wrote, noting that the exams have been adjusted to consider disruptions in learning that the pandemic caused.
At first, the students accepted the answer, and started to discuss with their families what to do next. None wanted to abandon the IB diploma, which can qualify them for some college credits and a Bright Futures scholarship.
Then they learned that other schools and districts — including neighboring Hillsborough County — had not simply accepted the organization’s decision about testing. Hillsborough requested to use the alternate grading route and cancel the exams, noting the concerns students and parents raised about the testing center environment.
Superintendent Addison Davis emailed IB families to let them know that request was approved. Pinellas teens quickly heard that news.
“We were all going with the flow when we started to find out about other schools in Florida that were able to change that,” said senior Madelaine Perez. “We thought we are able to fight for our rights.”
They started a petition, which quickly gathered more than 400 signatures. And they reached out to Hillsborough officials, to learn more about how that district got its testing waiver.
The Pinellas students’ rationale included several points, and not just the ones dealing with social distancing and air flow inside the testing center.
“I have not had the quality education that I expected or should have had,” senior Nina Greenberg said.
The seniors lost a quarter of learning at the end of junior year, when classes essentially ground to a halt, they said. That meant they faced catching up at the same time they were to be acquiring new material senior year.
That effort wasn’t as expected, either.
Online students struggled to get their teachers’ attention and to hear and see lessons taking place in the classroom — if the school internet service didn’t knock the class offline. The school’s IB French teacher retired, the students recounted, leaving the class with a substitute for weeks that put some behind in their required language lessons.
“I felt like I have had to work twice as hard to meet the bare minimum to succeed,” Greenberg said.
It wasn’t just the online students.
“The learning in person has changed a lot,” said senior Hannah Davis, who also is pushing to cancel the exams. She has attended in person most of the year.
The collaboration that IB is known for has fallen off, Davis said, as students are required to keep their distance from each other. Many lessons are self-paced instead of being teacher-led, she added. There’s also the divided time when teachers are trying to interact with the online students.
In all, the students suggested, it seems better to be graded on the work they’ve done than to sit for days of exams.
They acknowledged that support for canceling exams is not unanimous. Some IB students have opposed the idea, calling the others lazy for trying to escape the tests.
All that should be up for discussion, senior Jude Singleton contended. After all, the program is built on communicating, cooperating and working through issues together, he and others said.
“Even if the IB regional manager did make a decision, you can still appeal the decision,” Singleton said. “They would have if they had considered what’s really going on with IB students. They’ve never asked us, ‘Hey, how are you doing right now?’”
Added Perez, “Not being able to have a say in this, and to be forced to take this, is not what IB is about.”
They planned to shift their effort to the School Board as the May 4 start of testing nears, in hopes that the elected officials might at least seek more answers.
Several board members said they had limited information so far but would look into the questions that students are raising.
At-large member Laura Hine said she had seen some of the student emails sent to the district office, and had begun investigating the issue. Hine said she wasn’t aware of Hillsborough’s initiative, and didn’t know if it would work for Pinellas.
She said the issue posed an interesting situation for the district.
“If the question is, ‘Can you safely administer the exams?’ I think the answer is yes,” Hine said. “That’s a different question than, ‘Should we give exams and how much weight should we give them?”
Vigue said the International Baccalaureate Organization has been clear that the issue is safety — something the district can achieve. Maybe other districts have different circumstances, she said, but Pinellas is ready to go.
The district’s expectation is that, barring legitimate reasons, students will sit for the tests, she said. It’s a course requirement, and missing them could result in an F grade for their final exams, she noted.
“I think it’s more advantageous for our students to sit for the IB exams” than to take the alternate grading route, Vigue added. “It gives them one more opportunity to show what they know.”
If the tests stay in place, the students pushing for their cancellation said they’d probably end up taking them, despite their reservations.
“The IB diploma is something we’ve been talking about since freshman year,” Davis said. “But it still feels kind of wrong to do.”