The quality assurance of examinations at the national level

To ensure diplomas are valued and trusted by the labour market and learners, examinations need to be valid, reliable and transparent. In the Netherlands schools have a lot of autonomy. They are responsible for providing high quality education and organising high quality examinations. As part of the provision each school Board needs to meet the demands which are stipulated in the legislation. One of these demands is that education and examination needs to be based on the content of the qualification profiles[1].

Another demand is that the Board appoints an examination committee with responsibility for assuring the quality of the examinations. The committee members need to be professional and be able to work independently. The legal tasks of the examination committee are to:

  • check the quality of examinations;
  • check the results of examinations;
  • approve requests for diplomas;
  • settle cases of fraud;
  • handle any appeals from the students;
  • monitor and evaluate the examination processes which start when students are informed about the examination and finish when students leave the school;
  • be accountable to the school Board for the quality that is delivered.

To monitor and evaluate the processes the examination committee uses the quality assurance cycle in the EQAVET Framework.

To do this work well the examination committee needs to be provided with time and resources by the school Board which remains responsible for the quality of the examinations. To increase the examination committee’s independence there is usually one member from outside the school e.g. someone from a learning company or an expert in examinations. Managers with financial responsibility in the school cannot be members of the examination committee. However some freedom is given to the schools to make a case to the Inspectorate if they wish to include members with financial responsibilities. The current legislation (January 2017) on examinations is being adjusted to increase the independence of the examination committees.

Schools decide how to prepare their examinations - they can develop their own examinations but these have to be validated by an independent external organisation. Alternatively schools can purchase examinations from a company which specialises in designing examinations. These specialist companies work closely with schools and the labour market.

Learning outcomes are a central feature of the examinations. The learning outcomes are recorded in the qualification profile and this ensures that each diploma is independent of the school, the region or the type of education followed. One advantage of this approach is that the sector trusts the qualification profiles – this trust arises from the sector’s involvement in the process of developing and maintaining the qualification profiles.

To ensure there is a consistent approach to examinations, guidelines are given by the government e.g. the independence of the examination committee. In addition the standards for the assessment, validation and certification of qualifications are included in the framework of the Inspectorate which investigates the quality of the examinations that schools deliver. They also check that the school’s arrangements are based on the framework and meet the legal requirements. If a school does not meet the standards and requirements they are given one or two years to correct their systems. If they then fail to meet the standards and requirements, they are at risk of losing their licence to organise examinations. At the system level the Inspectorate monitors the quality of examination and produces an annual report of the schools’ approach to examinations. This report is used by the government to review their policy. Schools also collect data on individual courses and the whole school in order to improve their approach to organising examinations.

The VET providers in the Netherlands collaborate on examinations through their membership of a National Council. In 2015 this council agreed on standards for the quality of examinations and how each VET school would ensure they met these quality standards. In addition the VET providers work with stakeholders from the relevant field of work to agree the examination process. This collaboration includes employers’ contributions to:

  • the qualification profiles;
  • the development of the examinations;
  • the provision of settings where the examination could be taken and the students assessed. Companies are often involved in providing advice to the VET schools on the content of the examinations.

This practice helps to improve the completion rate in VET. Even though the aim is for as many students as possible to achieve their qualification, it is important that the level and content of the qualification is guaranteed. The arrangements for the examinations in the Netherlands are designed to achieve this.

In order for everyone to work according to the standards for the assessment, validation and certification of qualification there is a need for high levels of professionalism. This professionalism has to apply to all those who are involved in the examination process – from the VET schools and the learning companies. To support this professionalism the government is investing a lot of money in the training of teachers, trainers and managers in relation to the examination system.

The quality of the examinations has been increasing (as shown by the Inspectorate’s reports) and government, politicians and society have more trust in the system. Schools are more aware of the need for high standards for examinations and certifications, and school Boards are taking their responsibility seriously and giving more attention to examinations. High quality education cannot be assured without high quality examinations.

One advantage of the Dutch model for examinations is the separation between the schools and the organisation of the examinations. Decisions relating to s and certification are based on the quality and content of students’ work rather than financial, didactic or pedagogical grounds set by the VET school. Despite this independence schools are involved in the examination process and they are able to ensure good links between education and examinations. This helps to ensure that the students are well prepared.

One of the challenges that this Dutch model has addressed is the question of trust in the diplomas. In order to develop high levels of trust companies are involved in the examination process in many different ways and schools work closely with companies. The companies which are involved in training VET students are supported by the schools and by the S-BB and this helps with the organisation of high quality examinations. The S-BB also provides training for company-based assessors.

What lessons have been learnt by using these EQAVET+ indicative descriptors?

It takes a lot of time and effort for schools to adjust their way of working and meet new demands or standards. The time taken for information and changes to trickle down from the central level of an organisation to all levels within the organisation should not be underestimated – it is not an easy process. To support schools to understand the arrangements, the government has set up an examinations information point. This service supports schools in the implementation process; helps schools to analyse new demands and standards; and translate the new expectations into the context of their own organisation. Schools are very satisfied with the work of the service; many of their meetings are well attended and there is a high demand for information.

This independent approach to examinations is asking a lot of the professionalism of all those who are involved. Not everyone is comfortable with what is expected as it is a very structured and systematic way of working in line with the quality assurance cycle in the EQAVET Framework. As this way of working is not common in education, there is a need for a lot of staff training.

The requirement for all internally-developed examinations to be externally validated has caused some problems. In the Netherlands there are a lot of different examinations and therefore it is expensive for VET schools to externally validate every examination. As a result there has been a change and not all self-constructed examinations need to be externally validated. Those which are constructed according to the criteria developed by the Council in 2015 do not need to be externally validated. Consequently the new challenge is how to support schools to construct examinations according to these criteria. The Council’s agreement is based on a commitment and if one school does not meet their obligations the Council will need to address it. The schools need to hold each to account to ensure their examinations meet the criteria.

[1] For every qualification the skills, knowledge and competences are recorded in a qualification profile. A national organisation, (the S-BB) which represents the labour market and the schools, is responsible for developing and maintaining these qualification profiles.

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