Paula Kilpeläinen, Counsellor of Evaluation, Finnish Education Evaluation Centre
The competence provided by vocational education and training (VET) has been evaluated nationally for more than two decades. Evaluation is part of quality assurance in VET. In the past few years, the learning outcomes evaluation system has been developed by taking into consideration the needs of the reformed VET. In this blog post, I will provide a brief overview of the practices that have in the past been used in the evaluation of learning outcomes and throw light on the properties of the new evaluation system created as a result of this development work.
From test-based assessment to demonstration-based assessment
The competence provided by VET has been evaluated nationally by the Finnish National Agency for Education and later by the Finnish Education Evaluation Centre (FINEEC) for more than two decades. National evaluation of learning outcomes has been aimed at providing information on how successfully students have achieved the objectives of the qualification requirements. The evaluations are also used to develop VET, support learning and ensure the quality of VET.
Initially, the evaluation of learning outcomes was part of the overall evaluation of VET, in which the effectiveness, cost-efficiency and impact of VET were evaluated. Competence was measured with national tests organised at the final stage of VET. However, as learning outcomes evaluations were laborious and expensive as part of overall evaluation, they were discontinued fairly soon. There were already plans to follow the example set by VET for adults and develop the student assessment of vocational upper secondary qualifications into demonstration-based assessment. The aim was to integrate the national evaluation of learning outcomes into the resulting competence demonstration system.
In 2006, at the end of extensive national development work, competence demonstrations were included in vocational upper secondary qualifications as part of student assessment. In a competence demonstration, students carry out practical work tasks to demonstrate how well they have achieved the vocational skills requirements and learning objectives defined in the qualification requirements. A year later, national evaluation of learning outcomes was integrated into demonstration-based assessment so that the information related to competence was gathered directly from the grades awarded in the demonstrations. The information based on grades has been complemented, for example, through self-evaluation conducted jointly by the VET providers and working life, which has provided useful information on the strengths and development needs of the sector. The key strengths of the qualifications have been the good grades awarded for the competence demonstrations, the integration of the demonstrations into the education and training organised at the workplace, and competence assessment. The main development needs highlighted by the evaluations have been the need to develop the guidance and assessment skills of workplace instructors and the importance of ensuring the commensurability of the demonstrations and the assessment.
So far, 28 vocational upper secondary qualifications have been subject to a national evaluation. In the past few years, the learning outcomes evaluation system has been developed on the basis of meta-evaluation, external evaluation and workshops organised for different stakeholders and by taking into account the changes that have taken place in the operating environment of VET.
Even more comprehensive information on vocational competence can be provided in future
With the VET reform, the education and training of adults and young people was combined and a single method of demonstrating competence was introduced. From now on, the evaluation of learning outcomes will cover not only the vocational upper secondary qualifications but also the further and specialist vocational qualifications. In addition to substance knowledge of the vocational sector in question, the competence provided by common units and the key competences for lifelong learning are also evaluated. The common units, such as communication and interaction skills and competence in mathematics and sciences, are included in vocational upper secondary qualifications.
The common units and the key competences for lifelong learning strengthen students’ knowledge of their vocational field and work in general and provide them with capabilities required in further studies and lifelong learning. They include a large number of so-called generic meta-skills, which are often used to refer to communication, interaction and cooperation skills, problem-solving skills, learning-to-learn skills and self-direction. These meta-skills help to manage change and they are needed in various areas of life – work, studying and everyday life. Several studies and reports show that the importance of meta-skills will increase in the future and especially the role of problem-solving skills among future competence requirements is emphasised.
Making the voice of students and working life heard
In future, students and working life will be given a stronger role as producers of evaluation data in learning outcomes evaluations. Students assess their own competence in the self-assessment pilot carried out this and next year. While self-assessment provides nationally important information on how students perceive their competence, it also helps individual students to identify the strengths and development needs in their competence. Working life also provides feedback on students’ competence.
The risks that have been identified in relation to the VET reform by FINEEC in its evaluations include the availability of workplaces suitable for acquiring competence, the sufficiency and quality of guidance given at workplaces, and the ability of the new funding system to safeguard high-quality VET. In future, national evaluation will be especially important to ensure the high quality of VET. An increasing proportion of the money received by VET providers will be determined by the number of qualifications and units completed by their students. On the other hand, the funding system encourages VET providers to also invest in the quality of the education and training as they are rewarded according to how successfully their graduates find employment and places in further studies.
Let’s take care of the high quality of vocational competence!