When Your Final High School Exams Get Canceled

The cancelation of the worldwide International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma exams this spring is unprecedented. The exams, which take up most of May, are usually the culminating activity of a two-year rigorous academic program, and students in the class of 2020 were planning to prepare for these exams during the month of April. This situation is not unique to Alto students. Senior students all over the world currently have to face drastic changes: School campuses are closed, final exams and proms are canceled, and graduations will take place virtually due to the COVD-19 pandemic. But could this extraordinary situation also provide an opportunity?

When the IB Organization announced that diploma exams would be canceled, teachers and students had to decide what to do with their newly discovered time in April and May. Some IB schools around the world took a short-cut and students graduated earlier than planned. At Alto, we decided on a different path. The extra time provided us with an opportunity to dive deeper into learning. Without the constraints of a worldwide standardized exam, students had the opportunity to choose what they wanted to learn. This approach is in line with Alto’s philosophy of inquiry-based learning.

For example, seniors taking English language & literature at Alto decided to indulge in the easy pleasures of an online book club. That is, to read a literary work together without the weight of a high-stakes assessment shaping their discussions. They are currently reading ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ by Tennessee Williams and have embarked on engaging discussions, even during spring break.

In physics, students brainstormed a number of ways to spend the extra time they were given and decided to study the advanced topics that they otherwise would not have had the chance to explore this year. Each student has taken on a different topic, including astrophysics, relativity, and imaging, in order to build the background knowledge and develop a presentation that they will give in lieu of taking exams. 

History students choose to study past pandemics, ranging from the Black Death, the 1918 Influenza to HIV/AIDS. The research will explore the causes, effects, responses, misperceptions, xenophobia, and historiographical debates as well as primary historical records. Richard Goulding, Alto history teacher, explains, “Pandemic diseases, such as the one we are all expiring right now, hit the world seemingly randomly throughout time, but are profoundly significant historical events. It was an obvious choice to take a deeper look into the history of pandemics. Students will use critical thinking skills developed during the IB Diploma Program and apply them to this subject matter in inquiry and discussion.” 

One Alto senior, who is currently taking high-level design also decided to explore a topic closely related to the current pandemic. Despite having just completed a 56-page design project that focused on creating a lightweight, collapsible laptop stand, he was eager to further his skills. The student came up with ideas for a reusable, eco-friendly mask/visor that is effective at minimizing the risk of virus-transmission (both to and from the user), is adjustable for the user group, and will alleviate the burden on healthcare workers. This assignment highlights the importance of iteration in developing a product that is very much in need.

In mathematics, students were given a choice to either dive deeper into an advanced math topic, which many students who are planning to study science or engineering in college, have embarked upon, or to develop study guides for incoming IB Diploma students. Students who choose the latter will be creating revision aids from their own experiences for future grade levels. Chris Quinn, the mathematics teacher, says, “The preparation of the study guides requires students to review their learning over the past two years, and it is also an opportunity to give back to the Alto community.”

“The end of the senior year looks very different than we all expected and while we are adjusting to the new normal of distance learning and not being able to engage with each other on campus, this is also an opportunity for students to explore subjects that they are personally interested in and relevant to the programs they will be taking in college. If life gives you lemons, make some lemonade,” reflects Emily Carroll, biology teacher, and IB Middle Years coordinator. 

Alto senior students will present their learning at the end of May in different formats: online presentations to fellow students, written essays, or in group discussions. Alto International School is still exploring how it will honor the overall achievements of its senior students this spring. But we know for certain that our community will come together to celebrate them – online or in safe social distance.


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