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Behind the Scenes: High stakes exams at GESM

by Stephanie Steinberg & Julien Ferrandon

“Right”, says Mr. Ferrandon, “you have now entered the realm of exams. You’ve handed in phones; you’ve only brought the pens you need and see-through water bottles. Official answer booklets are on your desk. Mr. Kumar will read the instructions then the time starts. No more talking.” Hands slowly go up “What now?”, “Where are the exams, Sir?” 

This short scene marks the beginning of the IGCSE exams, two weeks after the start of the IB Diploma exams. Every one of you, dear reader, will remember taking high stakes exams. The anxiety, excitement, nervousness, the doubt of your preparation, the confidence or lack of understanding. For years, the students have prepared for these tests, both exams preceded by a two-year highly academic and prescribed programme. Nothing has changed from the times you took exams like the Abitur.  

Nothing at all? Let’s look behind the scenes.  

For the candidates to fully engage in exams, they of course must be registered for the correct subject, in the correct language and at the right level. Coursework is marked, standardized and uploaded months before the actual exams. Stationery and individualized cover sheets arrive in school weeks before the starting date. The exam papers themselves only come shortly before the actual exam period. As soon as you sign the arrival paper, the content of the packages is your responsibility. Exam papers arrive sealed in plastic bags and are stored in vaults. Access to the vault room is highly restricted. Examination rooms must be prepared, posters taken down, the distance between tables must be measured; invigilation schedules need to be worked out in a way that does not interfere with the rest of the teaching schedule with starting times set by the organizations. IGCSE exams sometimes finish as late as 9 pm to ensure the integrity of the exams and to prohibit any communication within a time-zone. At times, for one exam four different rooms need to be prepared and students need to be ushered to the correct room.  

When students arrive, they find dedicated teachers, tables set with official answer booklets, data booklets and cover sheets, a “hallway duty teacher” for bathroom breaks. Calculators need to be set to exam mode.   

“Your examination has ended. Please, stop writing immediately.” These sentences mark the beginning of another stage: Students need to make sure to have their candidate numbers on every page, fasten response booklets, draft outline and cover sheet with a string tag and only can leave the room once everything has been collected, sorted and sealed in yet another set of plastic envelopes according to level and response language.  

The admin team plays tag: DHL pick up is ordered, envelopes prepared ready for the sealed examination responses. Within hours, exams are on their way to the respective scanning centers, which will distribute them to the pool of papers.  

In 2023 a total of 179,917 students worldwide sat the IBDP/CP exams. Six subjects per student, 2-3 exams per subject – a huge organizational task, not to mention the stress of thousands of examiners who need to mark all of them as quickly as possible.  

At GESM this year (M24), our cohort of 21 students sat more than 68 different exams over a period of three weeks, roughly 15 different papers for each student, sometimes up to four different papers per day!  

“Mrs. Steinberg, please come to the lobby, there is someone from the IB.” There is also this: unannounced surprise visits by the IB to check on protocols and procedures.  

Overall, for us as exam officers, these weeks are highly stressful as there are many variables that can throw off the routine. But these weeks are also filled with great satisfaction and pride, seeing the students are at their best, focused and ready to tackle the exams. 

Remember: It may take a village to raise a child, but certainly a team to run exams.  

P.S. A quick sprint down to the vault and back up to the examination room solved the missing paper problem, and the first IGCSE exam still started on time.  


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