Assessing professional competence: from methods to programmes

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Some years ago we proposed a conceptual model for defining the utility of an assessment method. The model derived utility by multiplying a number of criteria on which assessment instruments can be judged.1 Besides such classical criteria as reliability and validity, the model included: educational impact, the acceptability of the method to the stakeholders and the investment required in terms of resources. In the model the criteria were weighted according to the importance attached to them by a specific user in a specific situation and this defined the utility of the method. That means that the weights of the criteria depended on how the importance of the different criteria was perceived by those responsible for assessment in a certain assessment situation or assessment context.

Of course, this utility equation was merely intended as a conceptual model and by no means as an algorithm or new psychometric index. Neither were all possible criteria included in the model, such as transparency, meaningfulness, cognitive complexity, directness, and fairness 2. 3. 4. . Regardless of which criteria were included in the equation, the overriding message the model was intended to convey was that the choice of an assessment method inevitably entails compromises and that the type of compromise varies for each specific assessment context. As an illustration, the weights attached to the criteria in a very high-stakes assessment, for instance a certifying examination, will be very different from the distribution of weights among the criteria when the primary purpose of the assessment is to provide feedback to students in an in-training context. A second corollary of the 'formula' is that assessment is not merely a measurement problem, as the vast literature on reliability and validity seems to suggest, but that it is also very much an instructional design problem, including educational, implementation and resources aspects. From this perspective, the utility model is useful, because it helps educators make considered choices in selecting, constructing and applying an assessment instrument.

In addition to its usefulness in deliberating on individual assessment methods, the model can also serve as an aid in the process of devising an overall assessment programme for a whole course. In this article, we will use the model for two purposes. Firstly, it will help us to summarise some developments in assessment which we regard as highly significant. Secondly, building on those views we will argue that the model can serve as a guide to the design of integral assessment programmes. With respect to the first purpose, we will limit ourselves to the assessment characteristics of reliability, validity and educational impact. In discussing a more integral programmatic approach to assessment, we will attempt to achieve a conceptual shift from thinking about individual assessment methods to thinking about assessment programmes.

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