Paul Newton (Ofqual) raised the issue of assessment competence in the UK VET system - namely, the ability of assessors to effectively measure a learner’s knowledge, skills and behaviours. He outlined two models. The first, a traditional nurturing model, involves an expert master assessing learners over time. Since the master’s expertise is linked to a guild, they teach and assess to a shared standard. Under certain circumstances, an approach like this requires no technical assessment competences – but how often do these facilitating circumstances occur in practice?
The second model, end-point assessment, applies tools like sampling and standardisation as learners are being assessed at the end of their learning journey. However, the introduction of these tools leads to more complex assessment processes. To conduct an assessment, assessors need both domain knowledge and an intimate understanding of these processes. Following the Richard Review (2012) the UK adopted this type of model. One issue currently impacting VET assessment in the UK is a shortage of these assessment competences in the sector.
Next, Janine Oliver (NCFE) outlined some obstacles to innovation in assessment. First, a move towards independent assessment has led to a lack of trust in VET assessment models. While compliance and regulation are not the obstacles many believe, there's a perception to the contrary and this leads to risk aversion when innovating. Other barriers include rigid marketplace economics and the transactional relationship between assessment and learning providers, which fails to put learners first.
Part of NCFE’s solution would be to create a VET onboarding system. This would benchmark a learner’s knowledge, skills and behaviours before they start training, helping determine which path is right for them. Alongside this, regular, formative micro-assessments – utilising data analytics – could be used to continually support educators, providers, employers and learners. To measure success, individual learners could also be tracked post-qualification, to ensure they access the opportunities they need to achieve their long-term goals.
Horacy Dębowski (Central Examination Board, Poland) offered the first international perspective of the debate. Poland’s state-regulated, standardised VET system was introduced in 2004. It uses a complex qualification model underpinned by a fairly rigid end-point assessment. The Central Examination Board has ultimate authority over all aspects of assessment. The main rationale for adopting this approach was a previously entrenched ‘push to pass’. Before most students in VET were passing, leading to a devaluation of Poland’s VET qualifications.
While centralising the system has solved this issue, it has also raised new ones. For instance, the importance of transversal competences (e.g. learning to learn, entrepreneurship) are increasing in the labour market, but these skills are not easily measured with standardised, summative assessments. As a result, like the UK, Poland is currently seeking new ways to develop and measure such skills, with ideas ranging from project-based qualifications to e-portfolios.
Finally, Viveca Lindberg (Stockholm University, Sweden) offered some fascinating insights into the Swedish system. Sweden’s VET qualification and assessment model relies heavily on an ideology of equity. Namely, ‘aspects’ (what is assessed) and ‘level descriptors’ (how students are measured) are simplified to the point that anyone can understand them. As such, all VET assessments follow a generic framework, regardless of discipline. Complicating matters, Swedish apprentices are legally students, not employees. The curriculum therefore dictates that teachers have ultimate authority.
Assessment takes place through a three-way discussion between teacher, student and workplace supervisor. Ideally, teachers are experts in the vocation, while supervisors work closely with the student. In reality, though, assessors – appointed by individual schools – are often unfamiliar with the vocation. Meanwhile, a student’s formal supervisor may not, in fact, work closely with them. This result in a focus on behaviours, rather than knowledge and skills. While Sweden’s underpinning ideology of equity is well-intended, this creates a significant flaw in practice.
Chris Winch succinctly summed up the main themes of this debate by saying: “Interpretation bedevils assessment”. Before progressing further on the topic, we must first define the terminology we use, taking care to distinguish between the aims of assessment and the tools that we choose to realise different aims. Edge looks forward to unpicking these issues in more detail in future. For now, many thanks to all who contributed to a lively discussion.
Edge previously hosted vocational philosophy debates on the role of trade unions and work-based learning. Contact us to learn more, or visit edge.co.uk