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Issues of assessment within vocational education pathways: drawn from the experience of England and the Czech Republic

Alan Brown and Petr Vicenik

A discussion paper - May 1999
(Original topic study of 1997 in DUOQUAL folder)

A review of approaches to synoptic assessment in England
The use of oral assessment as a major assessment tool in the Czech Republic

Reference to national case studies on dual qualifications in England and the Czech Republic.


This discussion paper has been produced as a contribution to debates about the possible role of synoptic assessment within vocational education pathways oriented towards higher education and employment, following on from a broader comparative investigation of these pathways in the INTEQUAL and DUOQUAL projects.  This report focuses upon two main issues.  The first and major contribution is drawn from the English component of the INTEQUAL study and centres upon the possible role of synoptic assessment within vocational education pathways.  The second contribution draws upon the experience of the Czech partner in the DUOQUAL study and focuses upon the use of oral assessment within vocational education. 

The investigation of the role of synoptic assessment in England was based on a series of small-scale investigations and discussions on ideas for the review of assessment policy and practice for General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQs).  The objectives of these investigations were two-fold:

  • to undertake a review of approaches to synoptic assessment, drawing upon relevant research evidence
  • to examine issues addressing the form that synoptic assessment might take in General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQs).

The outcomes of these investigations provided an academic underpinning to subsequent policy discussions on synoptic assessment.  It was an area of active policy interest in England and a review of discussions about the role and form of synoptic assessment could be of wider interest and applicability, as several countries expressed interest in work in this area.

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A review of approaches to synoptic assessment in England

A definition of synoptic assessment

Synoptic assessment can play a role as part of a strategy for teaching and learning and to fulfil the requirements of public accountability and credibility.  In order to examine the case for synoptic assessment in vocational areas, then the definition should be broadly drawn:

"synoptic assessment should test candidates' accumulated understanding of the domain as a whole and their abilities to integrate and apply their skills, knowledge and understanding in appropriate contexts".

Importance of integration and development of a substantive knowledge base

Synoptic assessment in unit-based systems can reinforce the need for integration and review of what has been learned from different units.  It can also act as a deterrent to a ‘surface’ approach to learning and reduce the likelihood that someone can complete a unitised programme with a relatively impoverished knowledge base.

Criticisms of reliance upon discrete unit tests of knowledge and understanding

Four criticisms can be made of the implicit assumption, underpinning a series of individual unit tests, that knowledge is constructed by putting together a series of blocks of knowledge over time.  First, it underplays the significance of how cognitive development is thought to occur: in particular, it does not allow for assessment of the mental models, schemas or networks of the area of study as a whole, and these are fundamental to developing expertise.  A unitised assessment process may favour compartmentalisation of knowledge and act as a disincentive for learners to integrate what they have learned in the separate units.  The model of knowledge acquisition underpinning a series of individual unit tests is similarly impoverished.  Replication of knowledge is tested, with little attempt to assess the ability to apply, interpret and associate knowledge, in a way that would be possible with synoptic assessment.  Third, discrete unit tests do not encourage continuing processes of review and critical reflection.  This is unfortunate as such processes are widely seen as fundamental to further progression.  Finally, discrete unit tests encourage tutors to compartmentalise knowledge in the different units, rather than helping students make links between what they are learning in different areas, through the creation of a framework that can help learners organise their learning in the domain as a whole.

Lessons from an earlier consultation on synoptic assessment in modular examinations

An earlier national consultation on synoptic assessment, reported by the national Secondary Examinations and Assessment Council, produced agreement on the need for coherence in modular schemes, but no agreement on how to achieve it, nor on what form any synoptic assessment might take.  There are two approaches possible to try and bring about coherence and integration through assessment processes.  One would be to design and assess synoptic units.  The other would be to use the assessment processes to encourage students to integrate what they have learned.  One argument voiced against the need for synoptic assessment for modular A levels in the academic pathway was that it was not always required for traditional A levels.

Performance assessment component of synoptic assessment

Performance assessments could be used to try to elicit successful application (and possibly integration) of knowledge through investigations, project work or similar activities.  Synoptic performance assessment would allow assessors to form judgements about holistic performance within (pre) vocational pathways.

Value of using performance assessment and knowledge tests for synoptic purposes

One problem with relying exclusively on performance-based testing for synoptic assessment is that it can be very time-consuming.  However, practically-oriented assessment supplemented by a synoptic knowledge test could be a feasible proposition in (pre) vocational education.

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The use of oral assessment as a major assessment tool in the Czech Republic

In the Czech Republic all the major forms of upper secondary education, except the apprenticeship programmes, result in taking the Maturita as the final examination.  The educational programmes offered in general, technical and vocational upper secondary schools typically involve four years full-time study, although the extension studies last for  two years, following on at a later date after completion of an apprenticeship.  These programmes may differ widely in some aspects of the curriculum and in their approaches to assessment, but all contain a significant general education component and they all make use of oral assessment as an important assessment tool.

The secondary schools define the topics of the different parts of the Maturita, and students are given a range of optional subjects to study in addition to the compulsory elements.  The Maturita at the gymnasium includes examinations in four subjects.  Czech and mathematical specialisations have written components, but all subjects have oral examinations.  In the optional subjects, the director of assessment (the head teacher) defines 25-30 topics, and the students draw lots to determine in which areas they will be examined.  The students usually get 15 minutes preparation, and the examination itself lasts 15 minutes.  The procedure is similar in the technical and vocational schools, with oral assessment widely used, but supplemented by written elements in Czech and practical examinations in some vocational subjects.  The approach to the oral assessment is as before, although in vocational subjects with just a single exam, the preparation and the examination itself can both take 30 minutes.

The choice of subject by lot, and the knowledge that he or she will have to make an oral presentation or defence, has some potentially interesting consequences.  Presumably most students will try to cover all topics in the programme, in a way that many students do not, when faced by a written examination in which they might have a choice of which questions in which subjects they answer.  What, though, are the other study implications?  What consequences does such heavy reliance upon oral assessment have for breadth v. depth of study?  Does it change attitudes towards the development of communication and other core skills?  As with synoptic assessment, it may be that other countries should consider making greater use of oral assessment within vocational education.

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 First set up 18/08/1999
Latest update: 24/06/2000
 Contact: Sabine Manning