Assessment issues arising from Subject Benchmarking Statements

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This paper analyses the performance criteria and learning objectives contained in the first 22 QAA subject benchmark statements, and reflects upon their implications for assessment. Whilst benchmarking can relate both to developmental work and to regulation, the subject benchmarking exercise sponsored by the QAA leans towards the latter.

The statements vary in the extent of detail in the performance criteria listed in the final section of the statement, but there are also implicit performance criteria to be found in the intended learning outcomes listed earlier in the statement.
Taken together, learning outcomes and performance criteria generally cover a wide range of expectations relating to ‘graduateness’ (what it is that a graduate in the subject(s) should know and be able to do). Allowing for variation in the nature of subject disciplines, there do nevertheless appear to be some gaps: for example, about half of the statements have relatively little to say about the creativity and innovation that one might expect the best graduates to exhibit. The absence of creativity could, however, be one of the consequences of the limitation of many of the statements to threshold and typical (or ‘modal’) levels of performance and their consequent lack of engagement with excellence.
The benchmark statements are broad in character since they have to cater for variety in the approach to subject disciplines and, in some cases, transdisciplinary spread. As a result, their relationship with standards is loosely-coupled and open to interpretation. It is argued that attempts to achieve a high degree of precision in specification are likely to prove counter-productive.
There is evidence of some lack of coherence within the benchmark statements and between the statements and the more recently published Level H descriptor in the National Qualifications Framework. Further – and inferentially – the relationship between assessment practice and the statements is problematic, not least because standards are difficult to articulate (and particularly so in respect of the personal qualities and skills that are seen as important to the government’s ‘employability’ agenda).
The application of the benchmark statements to curricula presents a number of challenges. Amongst these are:

  • how the statements should be used in respect of curricular components eg modules and units (as opposed to programmes),

  • how statements from different disciplines can be used in a programme that crosses disciplinary boundaries,

  • and how (or whether) compensation for below-criterion performance should be implemented.

It is expecting too much of benchmark statements to require them to provide complete guidance in respect of assessment. Professional reflection on exemplars is likely to be the most productive way of refining the assessment process in the light of the benchmark statements.

The paper concludes by listing a number of questions (appendix 1) with which the various parties with an interest in benchmarking might wish to grapple, as they seek to develop further the basis of assessment practice.

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